What next for testing and tracing in Northern Ireland?
Testing capacity has expanded since the UK lockdown on 23rd March 2020. At present everyone in Northern Ireland with symptoms of Covid-19 are eligible for testing. There are currently no plans to routinely test non-symptomatic or asymptotic individuals.
Northern Ireland recently developed the United Kingdom’s first C-19 tracing app. The privacy-respecting, decentralised model has been downloaded approximately 250,000 times in the first two weeks since it launched. The app has the ability to privately communicate with similar apps used in Ireland and potentially other European countries.
The Reproduction (R) rate represents the number of individuals, who on average, will be infected by a single person with C-19. The latest R rate in Northern Ireland has been estimated at between 1.2 and 2.0. The Department of Health (DoH) indicates that R is approximately 1.6 at present. Additionally, figures released by the DoH indicate that the seven-day rolling average for new cases has more than doubled in the past week.
As cases begin to grow, there is continued need for robust testing and tracing within Northern Ireland. This is particularly important as society enters the next phase of the ‘new normal’. The re-opening of schools and the increase of a return to work for those who may have been furloughed and those who have been working from home could lead to increased C-19 cases.
Innovative ways to increase testing capacity that have been trialled in other countries may be considered within Northern Ireland. Non-symptomatic staff were tested in some German hospitals in blocks of ten. Follow-up individual tests were only completed if a positive result was found. This approach could have potential utility within the education setting. Some American universities plan to implement routine testing of all students who return to teaching in September 2020. Both approaches help inform local and national estimates of R, increase opportunities for self-isolation and reduce the overall risk of harm associated with C-19.
As the Executive returns from recess in September, we would like to hear your thoughts on what should be considered to enhance testing and tracing in Northern Ireland.
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Dr Ben Harper