Contact tracing in England ‘not fully operational until end of June’

Head of service made admission on day it was supposed to launch, according to Labour MP

Dido Harding

Dido Harding, the chair of the NHS’s new test-and-trace system.
Photograph: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/AFP/Getty Images

A fully integrated contact-tracing system will not be up and running until the end of June in England, the head of the service has reportedly conceded in a conference call with MPs on the day it was supposed launch.

Dido Harding, the chair of NHS track and trace, said local government and the teams of experienced contact tracers would not be fully linked to the system until the end of June, according to a Labour MP who was on the call.

Ben Bradshaw, the MP for Exeter, said Lady Harding’s statement was “clearly at variance with [the] promise made by Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions last week to have a world-beating system in operation by 1 June”.

An England-wide phone-based system was launched on Thursday with 25,000 newly trained staff ready to speak to people who test positive for coronavirus and establish who they had been in close contact with over the previous fortnight.

The fully integrated system was supposed to be up and running on 1 June – when primary schools are expected to begin reopening and other lockdown measures eased – to prevent new cases of coronavirus spreading into the community.

Public health departments in councils are supposed to take on “complex cases”, where there might be a local outbreak, where home visits may be appropriate, or other situations that cannot be resolved over the phone.

The MP said he was not surprised by Harding’s answer because Devon county council – one of 11 beacon areas identified by the government for extra funding last week – had been told to prepare its contract tracing plans for the end of June.

“They’ve not been given any detail about how it’s supposed to link up, or how to enforce against people who don’t comply with requests to self-isolate. All they’ve been told is to have a plan in place by the end of June,” he said.

The call was organised for MPs by Nadine Dorries, the junior health minister – who accused Bradshaw of making a “disappointing misinterpretation”. Councils, Dorries tweeted, already have pre-existing plans “to deal with outbreaks of local infections, and whilst they worked on developing local outbreak management plans for Covid 19 they would be deployed”.

Contact tracers working in the national network were unable to log in to the newly launched track-and-trace systems on Thursday after a critical IT incident.

An email seen by the Guardian was sent to clinical staff by the contact centre company Sitel that read: “We are aware of a CTAS login issue for NHS professionals; this has been reported as a critical incident.”

One worker said: “Yesterday I got two emails with links to log on to the contact-tracing system. I tried to get in every 10 to 20 minutes up to midnight but it was not working. As of 8am I still could not get in and had no response.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “As with
all -large scale operations of this kind, some staff did initially encounter issues logging on to their systems and these are rapidly being resolved.”