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NHS test and trace review reveals weaknesses

  • A review of the NHS test and trace system by The National Audit Office (NAO) highlights weaknesses in performance
  • 600 million NHS home COVID tests may not have been used
  • 2 million people in the UK are living with ‘long COVID’
  • The UK sees a significant rise of infections amongst children
  • American scientist discovers that Chinese researcher deleted early COVID-19 data
  • UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps reveals new countries added to UK green travel list

A review conducted by The National Audit Office (NAO) has highlighted weakness within the NHS test and trace system. The study has revealed slow turnaround times for COVID-19 testing over the winter period and over-dependency on consultants. As a result, the NAO confirmed that pressing challenges must be rectified over the coming months.

The NHS test and trace service provides free COVID-19 testing for individuals who have symptoms of coronavirus and notify anyone with a positive COVID test to share details with recent close contacts. The service is run by Baroness Dido Harding, who is now applying to become NHS England chief executive.

However, it wasn’t all negative news, as the review also praised the implementation of local council contact tracing teams. This assessment is the second review that the NAO has conducted on the NHS test and trace service. The first review was conducted during early 2021 and was highly critical of the service, stating no evidence of the system having any real positive impact.

The latest review assessed the NHS test and trace performance from November 2020 to April 2021. The report outlined that the proportion of COVID test results given within a 24-hour period fell to 17% during last December amid surging coronavirus infection rates.

The NAO acknowledged that testing turnaround times improved during early 2021, although this was largely down to lack of demand in the service and coronavirus infection rates falling. The efficiency of contact tracing also saw an improvement when COVID tests were conducted at official sites. However, once COVID tests were conducted at home, the process underwent significant delays.

A significant criticism of the recent report was the ongoing reliance on consultants. Over 2,200 consultants were employed during April 2021, significantly more than the total in December 2020, regardless of pledges to reduce their use. Reports indicate that test and trace operations have spent GBP 1,000 a day on average for each consultant. However, the overall cost remained under budget with GBP 13.5 billion of its GBP 22 billion funding used, most of which was on testing.

The report also indicated that the UK Health Security Agency taking ownership of the NHS test and trace service, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and elements of Public Health England later this year could re-shift the focus on containing COVID-19.

According to the NAO, the test and trace service continues to be undermined by a lack of public compliance in taking COVID tests and observing quarantine rules.

However, a notable finding within the report was that millions of rapid COVID tests are currently unaccounted for.

600 million NHS home COVID tests may not have been used

The NAO’s report confirms that 600 million rapid COVID tests may not have been used, with just 14% of sent-out tests marked as registered.

Referencing the unregistered COVID tests, the report outlined that a research programme will be undertaken to decipher why the registration of COVID test results is so low. They will also aim to raise public awareness of the importance of registering results to improve test tracking.

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said that if lateral flow COVID tests were to become integral to the UK’s return to normality, the British public must be aware of the necessity of registering their results.

Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, stated that the data was highly disappointing as the test and trace service continues to face the same ongoing issues.

However, a Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman stated that the NHS test and trace service plays a vital role in the coronavirus pandemic by preventing virus transmission and identifying early outbreaks and that it is central to a return to normality.

The findings of the NAO report were disappointing following UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claims that the service would be world-beating. Although the test and trace service are currently under its maximum budget, the funding has exceeded that of the UK Department for Transport. As a result, the recent findings have led many to question whether the NHS test and trace service truly provides value for money.

2 million people in the UK living with long COVID

As coronavirus cases are on the rise once again in the UK, recent data indicates that there are currently around two million people in the UK living with long COVID. According to research by Imperial College London, over 6% of UK adults have stated that they experienced long COVID, where coronavirus symptoms have lingered for an extended period.

The new estimated figure is significantly higher than previous studies and suggests that women, smokers and those who are obese or overweight are more at risk of developing long COVID. The ongoing waves of coronavirus infections have triggered a significant number of long COVID cases. Since coronavirus testing was first introduced, over four million people have tested positive, although the actual figure is likely to be much higher, with many undocumented cases.

Paul Elliott at Imperial College London stated that the discoveries depict a concerning image of the long-term health scenario of covid-19, which must be considered within UK government policies and planning.

The revelations in the rise of long COVID cases follows news that coronavirus infections have increased amongst UK children.

The UK sees a significant rise of infections amongst children

Accident and emergency (A&E) units are experiencing a dramatic rise in admissions from children suffering from infections usually experienced during the winter months. The symptoms include high temperatures and low oxygen levels, with emergency departments stating that they have become overwhelmed by the level of admissions. Dr Dan Magnus from Bristol Royal hospital said that they are seeing winter-level emergencies during the summer, experiencing record numbers of patients in 24 hours.

Dr Richard Burridge, a consultant paediatrician, described how the number of children experiencing fevers is three times higher than in June 2020. Many of the children entering the hospital are pre-school age and are experiencing ailments such as bronchiolitis, para flu or rhinovirus.

Dr Camilla Kingdon, the college’s president, highlighted that the increased number of patients has led to significant hospital waiting times. Dr Kingdon suggested that parents seek GP, local pharmacy or NHS 111 advice rather than heading to A&E in the first instance. It’s thought that the rise in infections is primarily down to children returning to playgroups and nurseries, which was not permitted during the same period last year.

The college reassured parents by stating that lack of social contact would not have reduced children’s immune systems. Dr Liz Whittaker confirmed that she is not worried about the rise of children’s infections. Dr Whittaker stated that they are simply happening now rather than the winter months due to lifted coronavirus restrictions.

Prof Martin Marshall said that simple measures such as taking paracetamol or ibuprofen could help alleviate the symptoms and advised only to visit A&E if children are seriously ill.

Rise in Covid infections among Children

Chinese researcher deleted early COVID-19 data

An American scientist has discovered that a Chinese researcher deleted early COVID-19 data in Wuhan. Jesse Bloom, a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre in Seattle, found that data regarding genetic sequences from early coronavirus cases were deleted from a US National Institutes of Health database.

Mr Bloom was able to recover files from cloud storage and discovered that early cases of coronavirus found in Wuhan were genetically not the same as COVID variants that spread worldwide.

The findings do not clarify whether COVID-19 spread from animals to humans or whether it was due to a laboratory leak.

Grant Shapps reveals new countries added to UK green travel list

Yesterday, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps added 14 additional countries to the UK’s green travel list, meaning travellers will not have to quarantine on their arrival home.

Mr Shapps stated that the expansion of the green travel list provides further relief to the travel industry, a sector that has been one of the most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Some newly added countries include popular holiday destinations such as the Balearic Islands, Malta and several Caribbean destinations. Except for Malta, all the destinations have been placed on a watch list, meaning that they are at risk of reverting to the amber list if the coronavirus situation worsens.

Many other holiday hotspots remain on the amber travel list, such as France and Greece. However, Mr Shapps also stated that quarantine-free travel to amber countries for double vaccinated Britons was still possible.

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