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UK contact tracing plans criticised as lockdown begins to lift

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By Adam Vaughan Some schools have reopened in EnglandGuy Bell/ShutterstockThe UK government has been criticised for lifting some coronavirus lockdown restrictions without contact tracing measures fully in place to deal with any resulting covid-19 outbreaks. Lockdown was further relaxed in England on Monday, with groups of up to six able to meet in a socially…

By Adam Vaughan

UK primary school

Some schools have reopened in England

Guy Bell/Shutterstock

The UK government has been criticised for lifting some coronavirus lockdown restrictions without contact tracing measures fully in place to deal with any resulting covid-19 outbreaks.

Lockdown was further relaxed in England on Monday, with groups of up to six able to meet in a socially distanced manner outdoors and schools encouraged to open to certain year groups. However, the UK Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) said in a statement that it feared the government was “lifting too many restrictions, too quickly”.

The group said there were signs over the weekend that the public was no longer so strictly following guidance. A relatively high R – the average number of other people one person with a disease is likely to infect – of between 0.7 and 0.9 for the UK means “the room for manoeuvre is tight”, the ADPH said. It is essential to keep R below 1 to keep the outbreak in decline.

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“It’s a little bit of wiggle room so we will not be able to go all the way back to normal,” says Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London. “Contact tracing will help. That gives us a bit more leeway, but it’s not a panacea. It’s not sufficient to allow everybody to go back to normal.”

Ferguson and his colleagues have analysed anonymised mobile phone data and found that the public’s adherence to social distancing and restrictions has been high across the UK. But a group of public health experts and academics warned on Saturday that potential breaches of guidance by prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, had damaged public trust and could hurt future compliance with rules.

As part of the efforts to lift lockdown, about 25,000 people have been recruited to working on a test and trace scheme in England. They will phone those who have tested positive for the disease to establish their recent close contacts and then call those people to tell them to self-isolate. Similar programmes have launched in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

However, an accompanying app, which could notify people that they may have been exposed to the virus by nearby strangers, is now more than a fortnight late. There is no public date for when it will launch nationally, although it has been piloted in the Isle of Wight.

In the meantime, the test and trace programme will be able to handle 10,000 new covid-19 cases per day and soon there will be 200,000 tests daily, the government has said. Testing figures show that there were more than 2000 new cases a day across the UK last week, but the reality is probably about 8000 a day as most people with the disease won’t be tested, according to the Office for National Statistics and King’s College London.

Given the contact tracing system is new and the tracers are part-time, there are questions over whether there will be enough capacity. “It’s going to be more difficult at the beginning,” said the UK’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance last week, because case numbers will be higher.

The programme is “currently far from being the robust operation that is now urgently required”, said the ADPH.

Privacy advocates have also raised concerns. Data on people who have tested positive will be stored for 20 years, and details of their contacts will be stored for five years. The UK-based Open Rights Group is reported to be preparing a legal challenge.

Across the Atlantic, the US this week passed the grim milestone of more than 100,000 deaths, as anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd raised concerns over further transmission of covid-19.

From the start, the US has been pursuing a programme of contact tracing, with the 130 “disease detectives” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) focusing on states with low cases and high-risk places such as prisons. The agency has been working to scale up tracing capacity in each state by drawing on local public health officials, says Eric Pevzner at the CDC.

With much of the US public at home in some form of lockdown, Pevzner says it has been easier for tracers to reach them than with previous infectious diseases. While a few people have been distrustful of government in general, the tracers have found trust is generally high, with most people being open and willing to work with them, he says. “Most want to contribute, and feel like they are doing something to minimise the spread of this disease.”

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