UK’s test and trace ‘having marginal impact’: which countries got it right?

The newly released assessment by the UK government’s scientific advisers that the GBP12bn test and trace programme “is having a marginal impact” in reducing Covid-19 transmission has refocused attention on how other countries are faring with their regimes.

Since test-and-trace programmes were first mooted around the world at the outset of the pandemic – including monitoring via apps or hardware – they have been beset by issues of privacy and public support over both downloading and using apps and also with a wider willingness to abide by isolation measures.

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test-and-trace regimes have also been hit by practical problems, including system capacity that – as in the UK – has seen people forced into long waits for tests or results, which have undermined their usefulness.

Several European countries have seen problems with their test-and-trace programmes as the number of infections has climbed rapidly again.

As a comparison published by the Lancet pointed out, even behind the headline-grabbing claims of large numbers of promised tests a day, “countries and regions have varied in their ability to implement effective find, test, trace, isolate, and support systems”.

South Korea has generally been held up as having a model system, although it is worth pointing out that its efforts were helped by emergency legislation that allowed it to override privacy concerns.

Within days of its first case in February, the country was preparing for large-scale testing including of asymptomatic individuals. The contact-tracing system combined patient interviews to find out where people had been and who they had met with GPS data from mobile phones and bank card transactions.

South Korea has also been far more rigorous in its regimes for those returning from abroad. It is a similar story in Hong Kong, which last month introduced a free testing programme for anyone with a resident’s ID card.

Mandating more intrusive systems, however, is not the whole picture. Germany, which places a high value on privacy protections, has still managed a much more successful test-and-trace system than the UK.

While the country’s Corona-Warn App, which relies on bluetooth technology, has been downloaded by 20% of the population since June (still well short of Iceland at almost 40%) it has only reinforced a series of prompt and well thought-out measures that have marked out Germany’s approach.

Unlike the UK, which tried to construct a newly centralised system, Germany’s regions and even local labs were deployed with a degree of autonomy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the Lancet paper pointed out, countries that have done well are those where administrations enjoy a higher degree of public trust and where government public health messaging has been clear.

“With a few exceptions, such as Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, and South Korea, political leaders have struggled to secure public trust and thus support for continued lifestyle changes,” the Lancet paper concludes.

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