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Downing Street has confirmed there was what it called “a short delay” in tracking down the contacts of people who tested positive for coronavirus for several weeks, a failure being blamed for assisting the spread of the variant first identified in India.
According to local public health reports seen by the BBC, the shortfalls in the test-and-trace system during April and May affected eight local authorities in England, including Blackburn with Darwen, one of the areas most closely linked with the India variant.
This involved more than 700 positive cases not initially being reported to local officials, the BBC said.
Blackburn with Darwen had the biggest single number of cases where local authorities did not have access to full data on positive tests to allow them to track down contacts who might have been exposed to the virus.
Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said: “There was a short delay when asking some of those positive cases to provide details of individuals they had contacted since contracting Covid.
“This issue was across a small number of local authority areas and was quickly resolved.” All positive cases had been contacted and told to self-isolate, he added.
The IT glitch meant some local authorities were not able to follow up infectious people for about three weeks, between 21 April and 14 May, when cases linked to the India variant began rising sharply.
One local government source said it took at least two weeks for the problem to be resolved and resulted in some areas getting a “huge download” of hundreds of cases earlier this week, by which time the 10-day isolation period had ended for most of those people.
It is understood a “coding error” in the test-and-trace system meant positive cases were not automatically transferred to the Contact Tracing Advisory Service (CTAS), which local authorities use to follow up infected people.
It meant health officials on the ground were not able to help people self-isolate or trace the people they had been in close contact with, allowing the more transmissible India variant to spread more widely.
One local health official said the glitch had worsened the outbreak in their area: “The numbers of cases are almost irrelevant here. What’s clear is that there are systemic and operational failures in both the national system we’ve got to identify the risks from inward travel, and secondly failures in the management of test and trace.
“Both of those together should be giving a very stark warning that at the moment, despite the fact we’ve opened up international travel, our systems are not robust enough to manage that.”
One report by local public health officials said the delays appeared to have exacerbated the spread of the B.1.617.2 variant of coronavirus, which is thought to be more transmissible, and thus a potential threat to plans to lift most lockdown restrictions in England next month.
The report, quoted by the BBC, said “the rapid spread of Indian variant cases … may be partially or largely attributable to risks in the international travel control system”. It added: “These were exacerbated by the sporadic failure of the national test-and-trace system.”
But Johnson’s spokesperson rejected this, saying: “The spread of the variant will be down to a number of factors. This was an issue that occurred across a small number of local authority areas, so I don’t think it’s possible to draw that conclusion from this.”
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said it “beggars belief that yet again local health experts on the ground have been left in the dark for two weeks when we know acting with speed is vital to containing an outbreak”.
He said: “Ministers need to explain what’s gone wrong and provide local health directors with all the resources they need to push infections down.”
Separately, Downing Street has indicated it has no plan to publish the data behind a contested claim by Matt Hancock explaining why other countries were put on the “red list” for travel before India.
On Wednesday, the health secretary was challenged in the Commons to explain earlier comments that when Pakistan and Bangladesh were put on the red list, the Covid positivity rate for people arriving in the UK from those countries was three times as high as for people coming from India, an assertion not seemingly backed up by official statistics.
Hancock replied that at the time the positivity rate in India was 1.6%, against 4.6% in Pakistan, indicating he seemed to be referring to domestic statistics and not those for people arriving in the UK.
Asked for more details, Johnson’s spokesperson referred reporters to the health department. On being told the health department was refusing to give any more information, the spokesperson said Hancock had “set that out clearly in the house”.
Ministers are still considering whether they will have to dilute plans for unlocking on 21 June, as figures showed another sharp UK increase in the B.1.617.2 variant.
The number of confirmed cases of the variant uncovered in Britain had risen to 2,967, Hancock said on Wednesday. That was up 28% in two days, from 2,323 on Monday.
Areas affected by the variant have been targeted with increased testing and a push to vaccinate more people locally.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: England test-and-trace delays blamed for spread of Indian Covid variant | Coronavirus