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Covid-19 news: England tracing system hits new low for contacts traced

Drivers attend a coronavirus drive-in testing facility set up at the Chessington World of Adventures Resort, in Chessington, UK

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Latest coronavirus news as of 5 pm on 22 October

NHS Test and Trace reaches lowest ever percentage of the contacts of virus cases

For the third consecutive week, England’s contact tracing system reached a record low percentage of people who had come into contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Only 59.6 per cent of the contacts of those who were diagnosed were reached by NHS Test and Trace and told to self-isolate in the week up to 14 October, down from 62.6 per cent the previous week and the lowest figure since the system launched in May. UK government scientific advisers recommend a target of 80 per cent or more to limit infections from spreading. “[The latest figures] show a system struggling to make any difference to the epidemic”, said James Naismith at the University of Oxford in a statement

The system also returned a record low percentage of coronavirus test results within 24 hours – just 7.4 per cent of people received their results within a day. In early June, UK prime minister Boris Johnson told parliament all covid-19 tests would be returned within 24 hours by the end of the month. “We recognise that testing turnaround times must improve and we are working hard to address this,” Johnson’s official spokesperson told the Huffington Post.


Other coronavirus news

People from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups in England are at an increased risk of getting infected with the coronavirus and dying from covid-19, and part of this excess risk remains unexplained, according to a report released today by the UK government’s Race Disparity Unit. The report says “current evidence clearly shows that a range of socioeconomic and geographical factors such as occupational exposure, population density, household composition and pre-existing health conditions contribute to the higher infection and mortality rates for ethnic minority groups” but don’t account for all of the increased risk. In response, Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association council chair, called for “tangible action right now” to protect Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. “As we sit amid a second wave of infections, we know that about a third of those admitted to intensive care are not white showing no change since the first peak,” said Nagpaul in a statement. “Meanwhile, Black and Asian people have been found twice as likely to be infected compared to white people.” The report suggested measures to help investigate the disparity in England, which the UK government has accepted, including making the recording of ethnicity on death certificates mandatory.

In a trial of a potential coronavirus vaccine, a participant who reportedly did not receive the vaccine but instead got a placebo has died. The individual was taking part in a trial in Brazil of a vaccine candidate being developed by AstraZeneca in partnership with the University of Oxford. In a statement, AstraZeneca said “all required review processes have been followed”, adding that “assessments have not led to any concerns about continuation of the ongoing study”. The phase 3 trial was paused in September after a participant in the UK became ill. Trials have since resumed in the UK, Brazil, South Africa and India, although they remain suspended in the US.

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Race Against the Virus: Hunt for a Vaccine is a Channel 4 documentary which tells the story of the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of the scientists on the frontline.

The New York Times is assessing the progress of different vaccine candidates and potential drug treatments for covid-19, and ranking them for effectiveness and safety.

Humans of COVID-19 is a project highlighting the experiences of key workers on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus in the UK, through social media.

Coronavirus, Explained on Netflix is a short documentary series examining the on-going coronavirus pandemic, the efforts to fight it and ways to manage its mental health toll.

New Scientist Weekly features updates and analysis on the latest developments in the covid-19 pandemic. Our podcast sees expert journalists from the magazine discuss the biggest science stories to hit the headlines each week – from technology and space, to health and the environment.

COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One by Debora Mackenzie is about how the pandemic happened and why it will happen again if we don’t do things differently in future.

The Rules of Contagion is about the new science of contagion and the surprising ways it shapes our lives and behaviour. The author, Adam Kucharski, is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and in the book he examines how diseases spread and why they stop.

Previous updates

A woman pushing a baby stroller walks on a street during stricter restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak in Sheffield, UKA woman pushing a baby stroller walks on a street during stricter restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak in Sheffield, UK


21 October

South Yorkshire becomes latest region of England to face strictest virus rules 

Sheffield and Doncaster will be put under strict tier three coronavirus restrictions from this Saturday along with the rest of South Yorkshire. “The number of people with covid in our hospitals has doubled over the last ten days, with no signs this will relent over the coming weeks,” Sheffield city region mayor Dan Jarvis said in a statement today. “Inaction was not an option.” He said that he and other local leaders had secured £41 million in funding from the UK government to support people and local businesses once the region is moved into tier three. Yesterday, the UK government announced that tier three rules will be imposed in Greater Manchester on Friday, against the wishes of local leaders who requested more funding to support businesses. Today, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced a £60 million support package for the region, an increase from an initial £22 million package announced yesterday, but still less than the £65 million requested by local leaders. Tier three is the highest coronavirus alert level and means tighter restrictions on household mixing, as well as the closure of bars and pubs that do not serve meals. The Liverpool city region and Lancashire are already under tier three restrictions. By Saturday 25 October, 7.3 million people in England 13 per cent of the population will be living under tier three rules.

Scotland is expected to move to a tiered system of coronavirus restrictions on 2 November. Restrictions on hospitality venues in Scotland were today extended for another week after bars and restaurants in Scotland’s central belt area were closed on 9 October. Venues in other parts of the country are not allowed to serve alcohol indoors.

The UK as a whole recorded 26,688 new coronavirus cases today, a new daily record.

Other coronavirus news

New Zealand recorded 25 new coronavirus cases today, its biggest daily count since April. Two of the recent infections were locally acquired and the remainder were discovered at the New Zealand border, including 18 among Russian and Ukranian fishing crews who had arrived on a flight from Moscow. New Zealand has been widely praised for its aggressive response to the coronavirus, which is aimed at eliminating the virus from the country entirely.

Lockdowns have been reintroduced in regions of Spain and Italy, and Ireland will today become the first European country to return to a full, national coronavirus lockdown. Ireland is currently recording 270.8 virus cases per 100,000 people, compared to 348.7 per 100,000 people in the UK, according to the latest figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

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Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham speaking outside Bridgewater Hall, ManchesterGreater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham speaking outside Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Credit: Jacob King/PA Images

20 October

UK government imposes tier three virus rules in Greater Manchester despite local disagreement

The UK government in Westminster will impose tier three restrictions on Greater Manchester from Friday despite opposition from local leaders, who say the financial support for businesses that will be forced to close is inadequate. Tier three is the highest alert level and means tighter restrictions on household mixing, as well as the closure of bars and pubs that do not serve meals. Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the government had not offered enough money to “protect the poorest people in our communities.” UK prime minister Boris Johnson said at a televised briefing today that the region would receive £22 million in extra financial support. Burnham and other local leaders originally proposed a £90 million plan, which they reduced to a request for £65 million during talks with Johnson today. 

The UK government also signalled today that Sheffield and Leeds could be the next areas facing tier three rules, as cases remain high in south and west Yorkshire. If this goes ahead, one third of the UK population could be living under stricter rules within days, as Wales is set to enter a nation-wide lockdown on Friday. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said at a briefing today that she expects to be able to announce plans for a tiered system of coronavirus restrictions in Scotland later this week. 

Thousands of people living in Halton in the Liverpool city region, which is currently under tier three rules, have signed a petition asking for their area to be moved out of tier three. The number of cases in Halton fell from 399.5 to 338.5 per 100,000 people over the week leading up to 15 October. Tier three restrictions were first introduced in the Liverpool city region on 14 October, and are also in force in Lancashire and will soon be in Greater Manchester too.

London mayor Sadiq Khan today called for a 10 pm curfew on pubs and restaurants in the city to end, now that London is under tier two coronavirus restrictions. “We saw the worrying consequences of increased social mixing on the streets and on public transport in the capital around 10 pm immediately after its introduction,” Khan said in a statement. “Now London and other parts of the country have moved into tier two and higher restrictions, which prohibit household mixing, the current 10 pm curfew policy makes even less sense and should be scrapped.” Under tier two rules, people are not allowed to mix with people from other households indoors, but are allowed to visit pubs or restaurants with members of their own household or support bubble.

Other coronavirus news

To break the chains of coronavirus transmission in Europe, countries need to systematically quarantine people who have been in contact with those testing positive for coronavirus, said Mike Ryan, World Health Organization (WHO) director of health emergencies, at a virtual press briefing yesterday. “About half of our member states within the European region have experienced a 50 per cent increase in cases in the last week,” said Ryan. “If I was asked for one thing […] that might change the game here, that is: making sure that each and every contact of a confirmed case is in quarantine for the appropriate period of time, so as to break chains of transmission.” The WHO recommends that all contacts of people with confirmed or probable covid-19 be quarantined in a designated facility or at home for 14 days from their last exposure. “I do not believe that has occurred systematically anywhere, and particularly in countries that are experiencing large increases now,” said Ryan.

The UK recorded 21,331 coronavirus cases today, up from 18,804 yesterday, according to official figures. There were also 241 deaths from covid-19 – the highest daily figure recorded since 258 deaths were recorded on 5 June. Deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan van Tam, said during a press briefing today that he expects the upwards trend in deaths to continue.

Researchers in the UK announced plans to infect volunteers with the coronavirus as part of a “challenge trial” starting in January, although the study has not yet received final ethical approval. The initial aim of the trial will be to establish the minimum infectious dose before testing potential vaccines.

Coronavirus deaths

New Scientist Default Image

The worldwide death toll has passed 1.12 million. The number of confirmed cases is more than 40.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases will be much higher.

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