Test and Trace error fuelled Indian variant's spread in hotspot Blackburn

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Failures in the Government’s £37billion Test and Trace programme helped fuel the spread of the Indian Covid variant in Blackburn with Darwen, a report has claimed. 

The centralised system failed to notify contact tracers in the Lancashire authority of 164 positive cases in late April and early May.  

At that point the mutant B.1.617.2 strain was just gaining a foothold in Blackburn and the town has since become a hotbed for the highly infectious variant. 

It meant there were delays in reaching contacts and telling them to self-isolate at a crucial time when there were still only small numbers of the strain.

In total 734 positive tests were not passed on to tracers in eight English authorities between April 21 and May 11. The error is believed to have been caused by a technical glitch within the Test and Trace programme. 

A report by officials at one of the affected councils affected said positive patients were notified and told to isolate, but their information was not sent to local teams to track down their close contacts.

The blunder was blamed for proliferating the spread of the Indian variant nationally. 

The report, seen by the BBC, said: ‘The rapid spread of Indian variant cases… may be partially or largely attributable to risks in the international travel control system.

‘These were exacerbated by the sporadic failure of the national Test and Trace system.’

The Indian strain has gone on to spread to at least 40 per cent of the country and has overtaken the Kent variant in at least 23 areas.  

One SAGE adviser warned today that surging case numbers signalled the UK was on the cusp of a third wave of the epidemic.

The other areas impacted by the error were Blackpool, York, Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock. 

Labour said the errors were like ‘deja vu’ after a series of failings and IT errors last year which saw thousands of cases wiped from databases.

Failures in the Government's Test and Trace programme helped fuel the spread of the Indian Covid variant in Blackburn with Darwen, a damning report has claimed

Failures in the Government’s Test and Trace programme helped fuel the spread of the Indian Covid variant in Blackburn with Darwen, a damning report has claimed

While the Indian variant is spreading rapidly in pockets of the country, 60 per cent of local authorities in England have yet to record a case (shown in grey). But it is likely the variant has spread even further than the map suggests because the data is 10 days out of date. Experts have said they expect it to overtake the Kent strain and become dominant in the coming weeks and months

While the Indian variant is spreading rapidly in pockets of the country, 60 per cent of local authorities in England have yet to record a case (shown in grey). But it is likely the variant has spread even further than the map suggests because the data is 10 days out of date. Experts have said they expect it to overtake the Kent strain and become dominant in the coming weeks and months 

Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections

Positive test figures from the Wellcome Sanger Institute – which cover only lab-analysed cases in the two weeks between April 25 and May 8 – reveal the mutant Indian strain made up 50 per cent or more of all samples in 23 parts of the country by last week. Bolton and Blackburn in the North West remain the worst-hit areas with almost 600 cases between them and the variant making up 81 per cent of infections

Officials say the Indian variant of Covid may have spread rapidly in the UK because it got into multi-generational households, and there were a large number of imports as people rushed home after India was added to the 'red list'

Officials say the Indian variant of Covid may have spread rapidly in the UK because it got into multi-generational households, and there were a large number of imports as people rushed home after India was added to the ‘red list’

The Government said that a ‘small number’ of close contacts had ‘experienced a temporary delay in getting a message from NHS Test and Trace’. 

Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said: ‘This is deja vu and echoes the mistakes made last year with Boris Johnson’s ‘whack-a-mole’ approach.

‘It beggars belief that yet again local health experts on ground have been left in the dark for two weeks when we know acting with speed is vital to containing an outbreak.

SAGE adviser warns UK’s third wave has already started because of Indian Covid variant 

Britain’s third wave of Covid may have already begun because of the rapid spread of the Indian variant, a SAGE adviser warned today — despite data showing cases nationally are still flat and one top expert saying the mutant strain shouldn’t overwhelm the NHS. 

University College London epidemiologist Professor Andrew Hayward made the claim when asked whether the UK was at the beginning of another wave. ‘I think so,’ he told BBC Breakfast. ‘What we can see is that this strain can circulate very effectively. 

‘Although it was originally imported through travel to India it spread fairly effectively first of all within households after that and now more broadly within communities. So I don’t really see why it wouldn’t continue to spread in other parts of the country. 

He added: ‘Obviously we are doing everything we can to contain that, but it is likely more generalised measures may start to be needed to control it.’  

However, Professor Hayward’s comments come amid growing optimism from No10 that the Indian variant won’t jeopardise plans to ease all lockdown restrictions on June 21, despite fears the highly-transmissible strain could scupper ‘freedom day’.

Boris Johnson last night told the powerful 1922 committee of Tory MPs he was ‘even more cautiously optimistic’ the next stage of relaxation can go ahead. He said: ‘I know there are anxieties about new variants but we can see nothing to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map.’

And Professor Hayward’s claim came just hours before a King’s College London’s symptom-tracking app predicted Covid cases are not rising nationally, despite surging infections with the Indian variant. Experts estimated around 2,750 people are falling ill with the coronavirus every day across the UK, with the figure having barely changed in a week.

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist who leads the app, said B.1.617.2 ‘hasn’t altered numbers significantly’ and outbreaks remain focused in hotspots, such as Bolton. ‘While the outbreaks remain localised and UK numbers are steady and most cases appear mild, it’s highly unlikely to cause the NHS to be overrun or stop us coming out of lockdown,’ he said. 

SAGE scientists had predicted there would be a third wave of the pandemic as restrictions were eased and more people were allowed to mix. 

But questions remain over how big the outbreak will be because vaccines will stop many people from catching the disease and being hospitalised. Government advisers don’t believe the resurgence will be anywhere near as bad as January’s crisis because of jabs and warmer weather.

Whitehall insiders say the ‘mood music has definitely improved’ in the face of fresh evidence which suggests the current crop of vaccines work against the mutant strain. SAGE advisers also believe it may now be just 30 per cent more contagious than the Kent variant which triggered the UK’s devastating second wave.  

‘Ministers need to explain what’s gone wrong and provide local health directors with all the resources they need to push infections down.’

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters today: ‘In this specific instance, all positive cases were contacted and told to self-isolate for 10 days.

‘As you know, there was a short delay when asking some of those positive cases to provide details of individuals they had contacted since contracting Covid.

‘This issue was across a small number of local authority areas and was quickly resolved.’

Last year a technical glitch saw nearly 16,000 Covid-19 cases go unreported in England.

The error was caused by Microsoft Excel data files exceeding the maximum size after being sent from NHS Test and Trace to Public Health England.

It resulted in 15,841 positive tests between September and October being left out of the daily figures.

In March, the former head of the Government’s Treasury branded NHS Test and Trace the ‘most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time’.

The comments came after the Commons Public Accounts Committee said there was no evidence the tracing scheme had made a dent in Covid transmission, despite its ‘unimaginable’ £22billion budget for 2020. It was given another £15billion for 2021.

Meanwhile, almost 3,000 cases of the Indian variant have been detected in the UK, with the figure having quadrupled in a fortnight.

SAGE adviser Professor Andrew Hayward today said the rapid spread of the Indian variant signalled Britain’s third wave of Covid may have already begun.

Despite the threat of the Indian variant to the UK only being made public last week, reports suggest the Government was warned about the danger it posed to the UK four weeks ago.

At that time, the strain was already decimating hospitals in India’s major cities and yet thousands of travellers were still flying into Britain from the country every week.

Travel from India was banned on April 23 — two days after the problems with Test and Trace started. 

The Department of Health told Blackburn with Darwen Council that there were 164 cases it had been unaware of, although the patients were eventually traced.   

Despite fears of the variant and a third wave, a King’s College London’s symptom-tracking app today found Covid cases are not rising nationally. 

Experts estimated around 2,750 people are falling ill with the coronavirus every day across the UK, with the figure having barely changed in a week.

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist who leads the app, said B.1.617.2 ‘hasn’t altered numbers significantly’ and outbreaks remain focused in hotspots, such as Bolton. 

‘While the outbreaks remain localised and UK numbers are steady and most cases appear mild, it’s highly unlikely to cause the NHS to be overrun or stop us coming out of lockdown,’ he said. 

SAGE scientists had predicted there would be a third wave of the pandemic as restrictions were eased and more people were allowed to mix. 

But questions remain over how big the outbreak will be because vaccines will stop many people from catching the disease and being hospitalised. Government advisers don’t believe the resurgence will be anywhere near as bad as January’s crisis because of jabs and warmer weather.

Whitehall insiders say the ‘mood music has definitely improved’ in the face of fresh evidence which suggests the current crop of vaccines work against the mutant strain. SAGE advisers also believe it may now be just 30 per cent more contagious than the Kent variant which triggered the UK’s devastating second wave.  

One senior official told Sky News the updated transmissibility estimate would allow the unlocking to go ahead. Matt Hancock said last night no decision on relaxing the final set of restrictions will be made until June 14.

But the plans could still be diluted — which could see the end of social distancing, mask wearing and working from home guidance pushed back to a later date. 

Ministers are also considering asking high-risk venues such as nightclubs to ensure people are either vaccinated or tested before they enter. 

A total of 2,967 cases of Covid with the B1617.2 variant have now been identified and surge testing has been deployed in Bedford, Burnley, Hounslow, Kirklees, Leicester and North Tyneside to root out cases of the strain. 

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