The government’s struggling test and trace system for England was hit by “huge” IT issues that delayed calls to some of the most vulnerable coronavirus patients last month, NHS emails show.
Sources said the previously undisclosed problems led to delays of up to 48 hours in reaching potentially infected people linked to care homes and hospitals.
The government’s scientific advisers have said 80% of an infected person’s close contacts should be reached within 24 hours to stem the spread of the disease.
The IT failure happened in mid-October when the numbers of infections and people in hospital were rising exponentially across large parts of the UK. They will add to concerns that the £12bn system has failed to keep up with the second wave, which it was supposed to help prevent.
Emails sent to NHS clinical-level contact tracers on 15 and 16 October said the “huge IT issues” were being “worked upon at the highest level”. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) declined to say whether the issues had been resolved or how many people had been affected.
The problems emerged on 15 October, when an email was sent to NHS clinical professionals that said: “We are aware of huge IT issues today. They have been raised to PHE/Sitel.”
The email said there were issues with “tier 3 contact escalations” getting “stuck” in the system and with “outbreak cases that require contact tracing”. A contact-tracing source said tier 3 contact escalations often related to outbreaks at hospitals or care homes.
A second memo to NHS clinical leads on 16 October said: “Thank you for your patience and support yesterday. The IT issue from yesterday is unfortunately still NOT resolved and is being worked upon at the highest level.”
A second contact-tracing source said the IT issues were “highly prevalent” for a week and led to delays of up to 48 hours in reaching infectious people and their close contacts.
The glitch occurred in Synergy, the software system used by contact tracers, run by the private firm Sitel, which is being paid £82m by the government for its work on test and trace. Sitel has not responded to a request for comment.
The IT issues came at a critical stage in the pandemic in England, in a week when prevalence was estimated to have more than doubled compared with a fortnight earlier.
Data released by NHS test and trace shows the length of time taken to reach potentially infectious people hit its worst week during the period of the computer errors. Only 43.6% of close contacts were reached by the system in the week to 21 October, compared with 67% the following week. However, it is not known whether the IT failure contributed to these delays.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has said 80% of an infected person’s close contacts need to be reached and told to isolate within 24 hours for test and trace to be effective.
The DHSC said: “We have built the biggest testing system per head of population of all the major countries in Europe and the largest diagnostics network in UK history.
“Through the work of NHS test and trace, over 1.7 million people who may otherwise have unknowingly spread coronavirus have now been reached, and 80.4% of all contacts where communication details were given have been told to self-isolate, helping to break chains of transmission. We continue to work tirelessly to make the service quicker and more effective every day.”