Data gaps make it impossible to assess test and trace system, researchers say

“Significant” gaps in our data makes it impossible to know whether the Government’s test and trace programme is reducing the spread of Covid-19, researchers have said.

Led by University College London (UCL), scientists have developed a new public health data dashboard for Covid-19 which is being launched on Wednesday.

The team said that while developing the Covid Response Evaluation Dashboard (Covid Red) they found “significant gaps” in the availability and quality of data.

This includes the fact that it is unknown how many people are currently isolating with Covid-19 symptoms in England. Moreover, no routine data is collected on whether people actually isolate for the full 14 days.

This makes it impossible to assess how effective NHS Test and Trace is in reducing Covid-19 transmission, they said.

Researchers also found that some “best available” data was up to two weeks old and said  “real-time information” should be prioritised to “inform and support the necessary responses, including regional or local lockdowns”.

Professor Christina Pagel, of UCL, a co-developer of Covid Red said: “One of the major things that’s missing and has always been missing is the evaluation data on isolation.

“We don’t know what percentage of people with symptoms are actually isolating for the full length of time or their contacts.

“If people are not isolating then it’s just window dressing.”

“We would like that to be collected and reported weekly because it is such an important thing.”

The dashboard will collate and present data from the Office of National Statistics, Public Health England, and the NHS under five categories: find, test, track, isolate and support for those asked to isolate.

It presents indicators of England’s performance under each of these headings, and identifies areas where more data is needed, researchers said.

The research team hopes that the dashboard can be used to identify any stages in the find, test, track, isolate and support system that need urgent improvements and enable more informed public discussion.

Co-developer Professor Deenan Pillay, of UCL, said: “Coronavirus case numbers are doubling every two weeks at the moment, and access to real-time data will be essential during this time to monitor ‘hotspots’ of infection as we head into winter so that local health authorities can better control community spread.

“Indeed, an effective local public health approach is key to ensuring we avoid the need for regular lockdowns.

“’Track, trace, isolate’ is a key part of monitoring the effectiveness of social distancing measures, and to ensure infections remain low once we come out of current and future restrictions.”

Prof Pillay also said that it was easy for people to become “disenchanted” with continued restrictions without the data to show why they were needed.

He added: “What we are also trying to do is uncover the inner-logic of why test, trace and isolate is important and I think the way the pandemic has developed and the response in the UK, it is easy for people to become untrustworthy or disenchanted at the repeated requests for isolation without the continued appreciation of why this is important.”

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