Health chiefs have urged the public to cooperate with coronavirus contact tracers, after revealing that there was was “a real reluctance among some British people” to provide the details of people they have been close with and may have infected.
Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s Covid-19 special envoy, also warned Europeancountries over new cases emerging as lockdowns ease, with health systems potentially being pushed to the brink if a significant resurgence was left unchecked.
NHS contact tracing went live on 28 May. The latest figures show a quarter of people who tested positive for Covid-19 have not shared the phone numbers or email addresses for those they have met with contact tracers, in the third week of the scheme’s operation, government figures show.
The data for 11 to 17 June shows 6,923 people with positive tests were transferred to the contact-tracing call centre teams. Of those, 4,869 were reached and asked for details of people they had spent time with in the past two days.
That means 70.3% of people with Covid-19 infection were reached. This was much the same proportion (72%) that the Department of Health and Social Care said were reached in the first week, rather than two-thirds as it originally appeared in the first week of data, because some call centres succeeded in making contact late.
There were a further 1,791 people (25.9%) the contact tracers either failed to reach or failed to persuade to stay at home. An additional 263 people (3.8%) could not be reached because no communications details were provided for them
Speaking to the Today programme, Nabarro said contact tracing systems across the world were being compared with the numbers in the UK of people being traced remaining static for the past three weeks.
He said: “If I was in charge of the contact- tracing system, I would be really asking myself why is it proving so hard to find all those who have got the disease and to get to their contacts?
“It does appear there is still a real reluctance among some British people to be open about their contacts and perhaps they feel it’s an intrusion into their privacy.”
From 4 July, as hospitality businesses and other venues in England will be able to reopen the government has instructed bars, restaurants, hairdressers and churches to record people’s contact details to assist their test-and-trace efforts.
They will be asked to help NHS Test and Trace “by collecting contact details from customers, as happens in other countries”, said Boris Johnson. He added: “We will work with the sector to make this manageable.”
But privacy groups said the industry had been given no guidance on how to gather and store potentially sensitive data, while customers had been given no assurance their information would be handled safely.
However, Nabarro, said contact tracing is “absolutely critical” in stemming a resurgence of the disease.
“It’s the only way to do it,” he said. “So if you’re in any doubt please do cooperate on this contact-tracing issue because it is key to getting down to the low levels that we need for life to recover and people to go about their lives as they wish to.”
Nabarro also urged the government to be careful in setting up air bridges between countries to restart international travel. Describing it as a “delicate phase” of the pandemic, Nabarro said countries would have to think carefully about their risk profiles.
He added: “If we are just a little bit careless and we get one of these major, what we call ‘spreader events’, where a lot of people get ill and then suddenly our health services get overwhelmed again, in the coming months or two we’re going to look at each other and feel really frustrated.
“So please when it comes to restarting international travel be careful. Make sure that these air bridges are between places with just about the same risk profile. Then it makes sense.
“But don’t be pushed into establishing air bridges that might then raise the risk of one or other country having a much higher level of disease. We would be very cross in two or three months’ time with ourselves if we don’t get this right.”
Nabarro said it is still touch and go as to whether local virus outbreaks can be controlled but went on to praise the positive response by Poland, Germany, Spain, to a resurgence of the disease.
He said: “I’m pretty confident that most European countries are going to do well. So let’s hope that we are able to prevent these small clusters and little outbreaks from becoming overwhelming as we had earlier this year.”