WHO official: Life can carry on on with better Covid-19 test and trace

‘We must learn to live with Covid-19’: Top WHO official warns life ‘can go on’ on if test and trace works better and urges countries to do ‘everything’ to control the virus

  • Dr David Nabarro said the virus isn’t going away in the foreseeable future
  • Therefore countries must get a robust test and trace system to avoid spikes 
  • Currently the UK’s system is considered inadequate to prevent a second wave 

The world must ‘learn to live’ with the coronavirus, a top World Health Organization (WHO) official insisted today.

Dr David Nabarro, a Covid-19 envoy for the UN agency, warned the virus isn’t going away’ for the foreseeable future because it ‘doesn’t get bored’.

But he claimed life ‘can go on’ with robust test and trace systems, designed to stop clusters of cases before they spiral out of control. 

Dr Nabarro, however, warned of ‘very bad’ spikes in Covid-19 cases that will lead to ‘economic challenges’ if it’s ‘not done properly’. 

He called on countries to do ‘everything’ to control the virus, encouraging people to wash their hands, wear masks and social distance. 

His comments follow a major study last night which showed the UK’s test and trace system is currently ‘not good enough’ to prevent a second wave.

Scientists said reopening schools in the UK would result in another crisis that peaks in December — but could be avoided by improving the existing scheme. 

Ministers today admitted the struggling coronavirus contact tracing system must improve. 

Dr David Nabarro, the UN body’s COVID-19 envoy, said the virus isn’t going away in the foreseeable future, and so we ‘must learn to live with it’

Dr Nabarro told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘This virus isn’t going away for the foreseeable.

‘This virus is really dangerous and as humanity, as society, we’ve all got to learn to live with it.

‘And if I sound like a really dull person, then too bad, because that’s my message and that’s the message of the WHO.

‘Let’s all work on it together and do it as a community, as society, then we can get on. 

‘Otherwise we’ll constantly be pushed back with local lockdowns, other problems, new instructions from authorities and I think that will be more damaging to the future of society than everybody levelling with each other and doing it together.’ 

Dr Nabarro said it was clear the virus was capable of a resurgence, pointing to spikes in cases in countries that appeared to had recovered.


Latin America broke through five million confirmed cases of Covid-19 on Monday, according to figures.

The region is now the world’s hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus was initially slower to reach Latin America — home to about 640 million people — than much of the world. 

But health experts say it has been hard to control the virus due to the region’s poverty and densely packed cities.

The more than 10,000 new cases reported by Colombia’s health ministry on Monday pushed the region past the five million mark, a day after the nation reported a record 11,470 cases.

Latin America has now topped 200,000 deaths. 

Brazil’s total approached 96,000 on Monday and Mexico surpassed 48,000. The two countries have the world’s second and third highest death tolls, after the US.

North America is the region with the second highest number of cases, with 4.8million infections, according to a Reuters tally, followed by Europe and Asia, which have around three million infections each.

Latin America is particularly vulnerable to the virus due to high levels of poverty, urbanization and labor informality, according to a July 30 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Pan American Health Organization.

More than 100million people across Latin America and the Caribbean live in slums, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. 

Many have jobs in the informal sector with little in the way of a social safety net and have continued to work throughout the pandemic.  

Latin America has also a high death rate from the virus, likely due to a number of factors, including high levels of underlying conditions such as diabetes and obesity.

Parts of Europe, including the UK, Spain and Germany, are all reporting more cases than usual — following a steady decline in infections over May and June.

Dr Nabarro said: ‘As it surges back, the way you stop outbreaks developing is through having well functioning contact tracing linked to testing with isolation of people who have symptoms or who’ve been in contact. 

‘And, if we can do that, and do it well, then the surges are kept really small, they’re dealt with quickly and life can go on. 

‘If, on the other hand, this testing and tracing and isolation just is not done properly, then you get very bad surges occurring and this will lead to economic challenges.’

Contact tracing involves identifying people who have Covid-19 and interviewing them to find out who they came in contact with.

Those contacts are ideally traced down and told to self-isolate to interrupt the chain of spread.

It relies on rapid testing, the ability to reach all cases and their contacts, and the public abiding by self isolation rules. 

Dr Nabarro stressed that the process of testing, tracing and isolation, involves a joint effort between the public and authorities.

He acknowledged that people globally are tiring of restrictions and becoming complacent, which is a concern for controlling the disease.

He said: ‘I hear about people in Berlin protesting at the weekend about being fed up about restrictions. I hear about people in many parts of other European countries saying we’ve had enough of this. And I so understand it. 

‘I think all of us are just thinking “when is this going to end?”

‘We have absolutely no choice but to take it seriously and we must not compete with each other about it.’

The UK’s contact tracing system uses call-handlers who were hired by the government. 

An NHS smartphone app, considered a key part of the tracing system, was also supposed to be rolled out in May. But it is not yet ready.

Dr Nabarro’s sobering comments come after a major study said British children returning to school in September will trigger a devastating second wave of Covid-19 — unless the test and trace scheme improves.

Twice as many people could be infected than the first wave which would peak in December, scientists said. 

But it could be avoided if testing is dramatically ramped up and the contact tracing system becomes better.  

Experts found that, to prevent a second wave when schools reopen, the NHS contact tracing system must reach 68 per cent of cases and their contacts.  


Figures last week revealed some 4,242 people infected with coronavirus were referred to the test and trace scheme during the week of July 16-22.  

But just 2,809 (77 per cent) agreed to provide details of people they had come into close contact with recently, meaning thousands of potential patients went missed.

A total of 646 with the virus could not be reached at all by the tracers, who phone, text and email someone up to 10 times a day to get hold of them.

The contact tracing figures, released by the Department of Health, also found the programme failed to reach almost a fifth of people who tested positive for Covid-19 last week.

Little over 81 per cent of infected people were actually tracked down by tracers — marking the first time the system had caught more than 80 per cent of patients since it launched on May 28.

One in four people who came into close contact with someone infected with coronavirus could not be reached by the NHS Test and Trace service.

Only 75.1 per cent (13,974) of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate. This was down from the 78.4 per cent reached in the previous week, and the 90.8 per cent reached in the first week of Test and Trace.

Scientists have previously said eight in 10 Covid-19 sufferers need to be reached and their contacts isolated for the system to be effective.

But the current NHS system is ‘not good enough’, according to researchers from University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

It reaches half of contacts and only a fraction — around 14 per cent — of symptomatic cases are tested, they said. 

It emerged last night that ministers are drawing up plans for testing squads to enter classrooms in areas with a high infection rate to avoid closing down the how school. 

The authors said without improvements in testing it will be ‘absolutely essential’ to introduce other measures in September to ‘mitigate’ the effects of schools opening. 

This could mean pubs are forced to shut or greater restrictions are placed on people meeting indoors — an idea which has been floated by other scientists.  

A different study published last month found contact tracers need to catch 80 per cent of infections and test suspected patients within three days to keep coronavirus epidemics squashed.

Researchers from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands said the reproduction R rate can be kept under one as long as only two in 10 patients slip under the radar.

Any more than that risks driving the R — the average number of people each coronavirus patient infects — to the point at which the crisis could spiral again.

And people need to be swabbed and given results within three days to ensure they aren’t tempted to go outside and mingle with others when results don’t come back.   

The UK’s contact tracing system is only finding 77.6 per cent of patients who test positive.

And since the launch of Test and Trace, 83 per cent of close contacts of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 have been reached through the tracing system and asked to self-isolate.

One in four people who were tested for Covid-19 in the week ending July 22 at a regional site or mobile testing unit have to wait more than 24 hours for their test result.

This is despite the Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledging that, by the end of June, the results of all in-person tests would back within 24 hours.  

The Government’s own scientific advisers have been banging the drum about the need to catch 80 per cent of infections throughout the crisis. 

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