Thousands of workers in the government’s new test and trace call centre failed to trace a single contact of a coronavirus case in the first three weeks of operation.
Between them the 25,000 call handlers contacted a total of only 15,812 people to tell them to isolate.
The government says the system has contacted 114,000 people who may have been exposed to the virus.
But the vast majority of these were found by existing public health teams.
An investigation by BBC Panorama has discovered that 98,000 of the contacts were traced by only 870 public health officials.
The local officials work for Public Health England and are experts in contact tracing. They are responsible for managing more complex cases, like outbreaks in schools and care homes, which often reveal larger numbers of contacts.
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At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, a report written by Public Health England for the government’s SAGE group of advisers called for a ten-fold increase in contact tracing capacity.
Public Health England has told Panorama that the number of public health officials has only been increased from 380 to 870.
The government has contracted new call centre work to the private sector.
Insiders have told Panorama that they have made hardly any successful phone calls.
One call handler, who asked not to be identified, said: “I have had zero cases, absolutely zero, none at all. I’ve done approximately two to three shifts per week and I feel guilty for being paid to do nothing.”
Another call handler said: “It’s really surprising when you see the politicians at the briefings saying how well the contact tracing service is going because the people that are actually working for the service know that that’s not true. Absolutely not true.”
The government’s test and trace system has been unable to contact one in four people who have tested positive for the disease.
The Department of Health says call handlers phone people ten times before giving up on trying to make contact. It says it has built a test and trace system with sufficient capacity for the future, so having an overcapacity is a real success.
“NHS Test and Trace has already helped to stop more than 100,000 people from unknowingly spreading the virus.
“We have built, from scratch, a large-scale testing programme at pace and can now provide a test to anybody who needs one – with over 8.7 million tests delivered so far and the capacity to carry out more than 200,000 tests per day.
“This is an fantastic achievement, which would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of the public and private sector working together, something BBC Panorama seems reluctant to acknowledge.”