As Boris Johnson begins the process of gradually easing restrictions after two months of coronavirus lockdown, the ability of England’s public health authorities to quickly “test, track and trace” new cases will become central to controlling the virus and reducing the possibility of an even more damaging second wave.
But there’s another potentially fundamental problem with the strategy that’s been overlooked amid controversies over the number of daily tests being carried out and the NHS contact tracing app. That is, the length of time it’s taking for tests to be conducted, processed by labs, and the results returned to patients.
This lag in turnaround times matters because contact tracing relies on quickly alerting people who have been in contact with an infected person so that they can in turn self-isolate and halt the chain of transmission.
“Rapid turnaround is a critical part of any test, track and trace strategy as you are aiming to quarantine people who could shed the virus quickly,” said Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s former health secretary who now chairs the House of Commons health select committee.
BuzzFeed News has attempted to obtain this information, but the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has repeatedly refused this week to reveal the current average turnaround time for tests.
While the government publishes an update every day on new positive cases in the previous 24 hours alongside the number of tests carried out in that period, it does not disclose when any of these new patients were tested.
DHSC says it aims to return test results within 48 hours of tests being taken at regional test sites, and within 72 hours for home tests. Despite being asked repeatedly by BuzzFeed News whether these targets were being currently met, the department refused to provide an answer. Nor would it say when, on average, new cases published as part of the daily data release had been tested.
One current figure emerged during the prime minister’s statement in Parliament on Monday, though not from the government front bench. Johnson was asked by Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake whether the contact tracing system would be “more effective” if the time taken to process results could be reduced from “the current five days to as little as 24 hours”.
“Speed of turnaround is crucial in improving our testing,” the prime minister agreed. “We have done 100,000 tests again yesterday, I am pleased to say, but clearly pace of turnaround is absolutely critical for getting up to where we need to be — 200,000, as he knows, by the end of the month, and then a much more ambitious programme thereafter.”
Hollinrake, who represents Thirsk and Malton, told BuzzFeed News that the five-day figure he cited was the current turnaround in some settings, such as care homes, but in some cases it was taking even longer.
BuzzFeed News put the five-day claim to DHSC. Again, it declined to give an answer.
Public Health England (PHE), whose labs are responsible for NHS swab testing of those with a medical need and, where possible, the most critical key workers, says it takes 24–48 hours to process a test once a sample reaches a lab. But it takes time for the sample to be sent to the lab, and then more time for the result to be sent back to the person who took the test.
PHE said it could not comment on the total time from test taken to result because it was only responsible for lab processing time.