THE outsourced test and trace system has failed to reach nearly a quarter of a million close contacts of people who have tested positive for coronavirus, according to a new analysis.

Private firms Serco and Sitel failed to contact 245,481 contacts in England either online or from call centres over four months - missing nearly 40% of contacts, the figures show.

Labour said the figures show test and trace is "on the verge of collapse" and highlight the need for a short national lockdown to allow the Government to fix the system.

The Government defended the system, saying test and trace is "breaking chains of transmission" and had told 900,000 people to isolate.

Boris Johnson pledged in May that the system, which has cost £12 billion, would be "world-beating" and a successful tracing programme has long been hailed as a way to ease lockdown measures.

Labour's analysis of official figures released this week showed more than 26,000 people in the week up to October 7 were not contacted in north-west England, where the Liverpool region and Lancashire have been plunged into the severest restrictions.

The Prime Minister has threatened to impose the Tier 3 measures on neighbouring Greater Manchester, even if local leaders do not consent because they are demanding greater financial support.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves (Labour, Leeds West) said: "We are at a decisive moment in our efforts to tackle coronavirus, and these figures are a new low for a test and trace system on the verge of collapse.

"The Government is wasting hundreds of millions on a system that doesn't seem to function or even use basic common sense.

"The Prime Minister must act now to reverse this trend. That is why Labour is calling for a short, sharp circuit break to fix testing, protect the NHS and save lives."

The figures showed that the private firms did reach 372,458 contacts in the period of the data, May 28 to October 7.

"Complex" cases - which include outbreaks linked to hospitals, care homes, prisons or schools - are handled by local health protection teams, which statistics show have far higher rates of success.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "We're continuing to drive forward local contact tracing as part of our commitment to being locally led, with more than 100 Local Tracing Partnerships now operating, and more to come."

He added that, when including local teams, 84% of contacts had been traced "where communication details were provided".

Circuit breakers

This week Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for Mr Johnson to implement a two to three-week national circuit-breaker lockdown so test and trace can be improved.

The Prime Minister on Friday continued to resist the move, which has been suggested by the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), but said he "can't rule anything out".

Sage has also said in recently published documents that the system was only having a "marginal impact" on Covid-19 transmission.

The Prime Minister on testing plans

During the Downing Street conference earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "We are backing our brilliant scientists leading the global effort to find a safe and effective vaccine. We have also secured early access to over 350 million vaccine doses through a portfolio of promising new vaccines to ensure we are in the best place, and we are taking every possible step to ensure we can move as quickly as possible to deploy a vaccine if and when one is found to work.

"And we’ve created a huge diagnostics industry from scratch, scaling up the ability to test from 2,000 in February to more than 300,000 today.

"I also want to update on our future approach to testing.

"We are now testing more people than any other country in Europe but we always want to go further.

"One of the most dangerous aspects of this disease is that people without any symptoms can infect many others without realising it. If we can catch more asymptomatic people before they unknowingly pass on the disease to the vulnerable, we can help to stop the virus’ vicious spread.

"So far it has been difficult to do this. But that is changing.

"Scientists and companies in Britain and around the world have been developing new tests which are faster, simpler and cheaper. They have been working hard to discover and evaluate new testing technologies. Though there is work to do, It’s becoming clear over the past few weeks that some of these new tests are highly effective and can help us save lives and jobs over winter.

"We have already bought millions of these tests, some of which are very simple – meaning you simply need to wipe the swab inside your mouth – and can give a result as quickly as in 15 minutes. Some of these fast tests work with saliva and we are already using these in hospitals.

"Over the next few weeks we will start distributing and trialling these tests across the country. This will enable us to do quick turnaround tests on NHS and care home staff much more frequently. By testing more frequently and quickly than ever before, we can hope we can help prevent the virus entering and spreading through care homes.

"And we will be able to test students in universities with outbreaks, as well as children in schools, helping us to keep education open safely through the winter.

"And we will make tests available to local directors of public health to help control localised outbreaks - handing more control from London to all parts of our country so that those on the ground can use the tools we give them as they think best. And I have instructed my team to ensure that Liverpool City Region, Lancashire, and any other areas which enter into the Very High alert level are immediately prioritised for those tests."