Friday 18 September 2020 1:30 pm

Only a fortnight left until UK coronavirus crisis 'out of control', experts warn

The UK only has two to three weeks to improve its Test and Trace scheme before the spread of coronavirus gets “out of control”, experts have warned today.

The Independent Sage committee of scientists, chaired by former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, has issued a report to caution government of an upcoming crisis if it cannot get a handle on the infection rate.

It recommended that the government take drastic measures to avoid a second national lockdown, such as the immediate suspension of indoor service in pubs and restaurants.

Other emergency proposals included:

  • Encouraging people to work from home where possible, with no returning to the office until it is certified Covid-safe
  • Limiting indoor socialising to a bubble of three households
  • Funding schools to allow smaller, socially-distanced classes and providing digital resources for pupils who have to stay home
  • Creating an emergency fund to support all those needing to shield or self-isolate (including those unable to get tested)

The committee said a thousand of lives could be saved if the government can double the efficacy of the NHS Test and Trace scheme from 16 per cent to 32 per cent, but that it must happen immediately.

Karl Friston, a neuroscientist at University College London, said current assumptions that the government has to reach 80 per cent of contacts for every infected person may be “fundamentally misguided”.

“Dynamic causal modelling shows a simple doubling of contact tracing efficacy… would bend the curve — and save about 1,000 lives,” he said alongside the report’s release.

Friston said the government should re-focus the Test and Trace scheme towards using local public health teams to find, monitor and support traced persons, rather than staffing remote call centres.

“The headline from the quantitative modelling of recent trends in new cases is clear: now is the time for ‘shoe-leather’ epidemiology,” he said.

“Crucially, this kind of contact tracing can only be done effectively using local knowledge (e.g. cultural aspects), expertise and detective work.”

Friston added that such an approach would reduce the demand for tests, which could be better used for testing those without symptoms who have come into contact with a confirmed case.

The report comes as the UK’s coronavirus testing infrastructure is reaching its breaking point, as thousands are left unable to book a test in their local area.

Meanwhile the virus is now understood to be doubling every seven to eight days, with more than 3,300 new cases reported yesterday.