Britain's 'world-leading' Test and Trace system has failed to reach more than 100,000 people exposed to coronavirus in England's hotspots since the second wave began, official figures show.
The privately-run arm of the £22billion programme has reached just 58 per cent of the close contacts of people who tested positive for the virus in the 20 worst-hit areas since September 9.
In Blackburn and Darwen, which has had the highest Covid-19 infection rate per capita in the UK since the start of the pandemic, just half of close contacts have been reached during the second wave.
In Leicester and Oldham - which have previously been the UK's Covid hotspot - the figure was 53 per cent and 54 per cent, respectively, according to analysis of The Guardian.
SAGE has repeatedly warned the system must reach up to 80 per cent of close contacts within 72 hours for it to keep a lid on local outbreaks. It's feared the lagging system allowed the virus to spread unchecked in areas with high transmission.
The beleaguered contact tracing system, heralded as 'world-beating' by Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, has struggled to reach more than 60 per cent of close contacts for five weeks in a row.
Mr Hancock yesterday attempted to defend the programme, claiming transmission had risen so high so quickly in the second wave that demand was outstripping capacity.
Tracers reached 85 per cent of the 141,800 people who tested positive for Covid-19 in the week ending November 4 which was its best performance yet — but still means 20,000 infected patients, and all of their contacts, slipped through the net
BUNGLING TEST AND TRACE HIT BY HUGE IT PROBLEMS
NHS Test and Trace was hit by 'huge IT problems' in October that led to delays in squashing coronavirus outbreaks in care homes, according to leaked emails.
NHS staff revealed an IT failure occurred in mid-October at a crucial point of the second wave of the pandemic, when infections were rising all over England.
It caused problems in the software used by contact tracers who phone people who have been in close proximity to a Covid-19 case.
Sources told The Guardian it led to delays of up to 48 hours in reaching potentially infected people linked to care homes and hospitals, home to the most vulnerable people to Covid-19, in some of England's Covid-19 hotspots.
Data shows performance dropped to record lows in that week, with only 43.6 per cent of close contacts reached. Scientists have said 80 per cent must be reached in 24 hours to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
In the 11 weeks to November 4, The Guardian found more than 109,000 close contacts of people who had tested positive for the virus were missed.
A £730million contract was handed to private companies Serco and Sitel in May to contract trace for the Government for 12 months. They received an initial £192m when the deal was struck, with the rest to be paid throughout the year.
The firms have focused on running centralised call-centres, which phone up and email people who test positive and ask them to disclose the people they've been in contact recently.
The Government has also started paying local contact tracers to do boots-on-the-ground work in communities, by knocking on people's doors.
Alice Wiseman, the director for public health at Gateshead council in Newcastle, told the Guardian she was concerned by the shocking figures.
She said: 'It means there are more than 3,400 people out there potentially spreading the virus without knowing.
'It’s critical we get test and trace into a brilliant position for when we come out of lockdown.'
The system, designed to prevent a second lockdown, has been roundly criticised by MPs because it is not managing to ask enough people exposed to the virus to self-isolate - and then ensure they comply with the request.
Dido Harding, the former Talk Talk chief exec running the contract tracing programme, has faced mounting calls to quit her post and hand it to a medical expert over the poor performance.
Figures from its most recent week, ending November 4, show that the system again hit record lows in terms of performance, after failing to reach 20,000 people infected with coronavirus and collect their close contacts.
In mid-October it also only managed to contact just 43.6 per cent of close contacts of those who tested positive for the virus - when an IT glitch meant it failed to control outbreaks in care homes.
But yesterday the Health Secretary sought to defend Test and Trace, arguing he couldn't lay the blame for declining performance at the door of the operation because Covid-19 cases had surged so quickly.
'They had expanded enormously quickly given the circumstances,' Mr Hancock told Parliament's Health and Social Care Committee.
The number of Covid-19 cases transferred to the contact tracing system and the number of those that were reached is shown above for the week ending November 4
'The biggest fall off between the actual cases in the community and the total number of people who were contacted by Test and Trace was actually the gap between people who were asymptomatic getting the test.'
Pressed on why SAGE had said it was only having a marginal impact, he added this was because 'there were so many other things that were leading to upward pressure on cases' and said the system couldn't work on its own to drive down infections.
Matt Hancock yesterday defended the system and said its failures were down to rapidly surging cases in Autumn
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted last month he shared people's 'frustrations' with the system, but said he hoped it would drive down coronavirus cases.
Since it was brought in cases remained low during the summer months before spiralling after September when schools and universities went back across the country.
This led to more stringent curbs on people's daily lives - in the form of the tiered system - before lockdowns were re-declared across each of the UK's four nations.
Baroness Harding has faced mounting pressure to resign from her post in recent weeks over its performance.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: 'Contact tracing is working in every part of the country.
'The most recent weekly statistics show a record number of positive cases were transferred to contact tracers with 323,080 people reached and asked them to self-isolate - people who might otherwise have unknowingly spread the virus.
'In high outbreak areas such as the northwest we have reached almost 500,000 people. This is undoubtedly curbing the spread of Covid and saving lives.
'NHS Test and Trace has been boosted by the introduction of more than 150 Local tracing partnerships where councils are provided with extensive data and supported to manage local outbreaks, working closely with ring-fenced group of NHS contact tracers.'