Launch of NHS Test and Trace
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19, an infectious disease caused by a novel coronavirus, a pandemic. Social distancing and other measures were implemented worldwide to limit the spread of the virus.
WHO recommended governments follow a strategy of tracing contacts of people with COVID-19 symptoms in January 2020. In March, WHO outlined a ‘simple message for all countries: test, test, test’. There was limited availability of COVID-19 diagnostic tests in England in the first few months of the pandemic. As the numbers of COVID cases rose, government stopped testing members of the public on 12 March 2020, instead prioritising hospital staff and patients. Contact tracing for community cases in England also stopped, with active contact tracing confined to high-risk settings such as care homes and hospitals.
Testing capacity increased over time, enabling the government to expand test eligibility. In April 2020, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, updated on the creation of a ‘test, track and trace’ programme in England. This included the large-scale recruitment of contract tracers and development of a new contact tracing app. In early May 2020, government launched a pilot of the scheme on the Isle of Wight and confirmed the appointment of Baroness Dido Harding, Chair of NHS Improvement, to lead the Test and Trace programme.
Launch of NHS Test and Trace
On 28 May 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care launched NHS Test and Trace. Test and Trace aimed to ensure that anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 had access to a test and, if they tested positive, their recent close contacts were advised to isolate.
The service initially only used telephone-based contact tracing, as the contact tracing app was delayed because of concerns about its effectiveness. The NHS COVID-19 smartphone app was eventually introduced in September 2020. The app used Bluetooth technology to log the amount of time a person spent near other app users and the distance between them. The app then notified and advised close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases on what to do.
NHS Test and Trace was allocated a £22bn budget for 2020/21. It spent £13.5bn in 2020/21 and £16bn in 2021/22.
Modelling of government data found that testing, contact tracing and self-isolation ‘directly prevented’ 1.2 million or more COVID-19 infections in England from June 2020 to April 2021.
A Public Accounts Committee report on Test and Trace in October 2021 found that ‘its outcomes have been muddled and a number of its professed aims have been overstated or not achieved.’ It concluded that the programme had increased capacity and efficiency for COVID-19 testing and identifying cases, but it had not been able to ‘deliver on its central promise of averting another lockdown’.
In October 2021, Test and Trace became part of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), alongside the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the health protection functions of Public Health England. As part of the government’s strategy for ‘Living with COVID-19’, routine contact tracing of members of the public ended on 24 February 2022.
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