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Coronavirus news: UK has reached 200,000 daily testing target, government claims after Raab admits he did not know Cummings was self-isolating in Durham when he acted PM

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Coronavirus: UK death toll increases by 113 to 38,489

The UK government claimed it had reached its testing capacity target of 200,000-a-day, amid mounting concerns about the effectiveness of the test and trace system ahead of the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab was unable to say how many people have so far been traced under the new scheme, which he claimed could cope with 10,000 new patients a day, after it emerged that PHE had capacity only to trace the contacts of five patients a week when contact-tracing was first abandoned in March.

Mr Raab also admitted he “wasn’t aware” that Dominic Cummings was in Durham while deputising as PM during Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation. Dozens of leading scientists and public health experts have warned Mr Johnson that the scandal has “badly damaged” public trust in the government, which they deemed essential to reduce the risk of a second wave.

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Country entering 'critical week' as lockdown measures relaxed, Labour leader warns 

Sir Keir Starmer claimed government action over the past 10 days had made difficult decisions more "risky".

"Labour supported the lockdown and has always argued that restrictions need to be eased gradually and in a safe way," Sir Keir said. "The government's actions over the past 10 days have made difficult decisions more risky.

"First, ministers have not yet got a fully functioning test, track and trace system in place; and second, the Government's public health message has been undermined because the Prime Minister was too weak to take firm action against Dominic Cummings for breaking lockdown.

"Ministers need to accept that mistakes have been made and do everything they now can to reduce the risks to public health. That should include three things.

"First, a reiteration of the Government's commitment to follow the science and take immediate action if scientists start raising the alarm.

"Second, ensure flexibility to allow restrictions to be rapidly reintroduced, both nationally and locally, if we see an increase in the R-rate.

"And third, a redoubling of efforts to ensure we have a fully functioning and effective test, track and trace system in place as soon as possible. This is going to be a critical week for the country and a key test of the government's strategy.

"I would urge everyone to do their bit in the national interest by following the public health advice and helping to save lives."

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 08:17

Dominic Cummings has damaged public trust, leading scientists warn Boris Johnson

Twenty-six leading UK scientists and public health experts have warned that the Dominic Cummings scandal has “badly damaged” public trust in the government’s lockdown measures, Peter Stubley reports.

In a letter to Boris Johnson on Friday, the group expressed their fears about the safety and wellbeing of the British people as a result of the behaviour of the prime minister’s chief aide.

“As lockdown is eased, public trust and high compliance is essential to reduce the risk of a second spike in infections and deaths,” the academics wrote.

 “This trust has been badly damaged by the actions of Dominic Cummings, including his failure to stand down or resign in the public interest.”

The scientists, including two members of the independent Sage panel, set up to mirror the government’s own advisory group, also criticise the prime minister’s “unwillingness” to sack Mr Cummings.

“It is vital for all people in positions of power to follow the rules with the same discipline as the rest of the population,” they add in the letter published in The Observer.

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 08:19

'One size fits all' return to school puts lives at risk, Labour says

"Labour supports the lockdown easing but it's critically important that as that happens it's done in the safest way that it possibly can be, and I think that's where over the weekend we've seen some scientists in particular raising concerns about whether the way the government is going about this is safe or not," said Labour's Steve Reed.

Asked about schools reopening, the shadow communities and local government secretary said: "We don't have a single rate of infection of this disease across the country. It's much higher than it is in some areas than in other areas, so the way to deal with that is to set clear national standards that everyone can understand, but allow for flexibility in how those are applied in particular localities.

"If you try and apply one size fits all to this, when the circumstances are so very different in different parts of the country, you'll put children and their families at risk and nobody wants to see that."

He added: I'm aware that in up to a third of communities, some children are not getting any school at all because they don't have the technology at home that allows them to have lessons ... three months, four months for a child to be out of school is an incredibly big gap in their education, so all of us want to see schools open, but it has to be done in a gradual way that maintains parents' confidence that it's safe for their child to go back.

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 08:55

Government has changed school plans 41 times in three weeks, union chief says

"We think tomorrow is too soon and we have made that argument very clearly for a number of weeks," said Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union.

"We know that vulnerable children need to get back in school and we know that children need school for socialisation, physical health and mental health, so we're not making the call that schools should not reopen tomorrow lightly, we're doing it because we do not believe the government's own tests have been met.

"And it is very complex and difficult to work in schools and to do so safely, particularly with the guidelines that the government has produced."

Asked about warnings from Ofsted of a "lost generation" of children unable to access education in lockdown, Ms Bousted added: "Teachers and support staff have done everything they can in this pandemic to try and connect with those children, particularly the most vulnerable children, but actually they've got places in schools, and many are not taking them up because the parents are scared about the virus and bringing the virus back home.

"There's a huge thing to do about public confidence and parental confidence that it is safe to get your children back to school, and the government simply did not give enough time to plan.

"The government's plans on reopening schools since they were first produced on 12 May have been changed 41 times, and that's because they constantly had to be revised as things they'd forgotten, things they didn't know, things they got wrong, have been added in.

"That's hugely added to the stress of school leaders and teachers, because we have a government simply who, they think, is just making it up as it goes along."

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 09:07

Lockdown easing is right measure if you want virus to spread while there is excess NHS capacity, public health expert says

Asked if it's right to ease lockdown, Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University, said: "I think it depends what your objective is. If your objective is to say that the virus needs to spread through the population and you just need to stay within health service capacity, then yes it makes sense to open up right now when there's excess NHS capacity and you have the ability to treat everyone who needs it.

"If your objective is to contain the virus, to drive numbers down, and to try to get rid of it, so no one is exposed to it, then it is not the right measure right now to open up."

ONS data suggests there are currently 8,000 new infections per day in England.

Prof Sridhar said: "If we look at other countries which have been opening up, and which we want to be in the position of - I'm thinking South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Germany - they've been able to bring down infections at least to the low hundreds ideally, to double digits.

"To be standing at 8,000 infections a day and to think that testing and tracing system can do the work, what you really need is a package of interventions and we're really far off on that and we don't really have good enough data systems to be able to monitor at the local level, so it's a big risk and gamble.

"We're exiting lockdown with a larger number of deaths than we actually did when we entered lockdown months back."

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 09:25

8,000 new daily cases 'not low enough to have testing and tracing system take over'

Asked if the government can still say it's listening to the science, Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University said: "No, it's clear that there's a divide now and these are political decisions.

"So take the issue of schools; scientists can lay out the uncertainty, we can lay out the worry about teachers and parents and grandparents and wider community transmission, but the ultimate decision has to be made by politicians. So I think what they should be saying is that they consider the science, and hopefully they listen to it, but the decision and who actually has the accountability are the politicians and leaders."

Asked whether an increase in new cases is now inevitable, she replied: "I'm very sorry to say that I think it is right now inevitable looking at the numbers. The only thing that might save England is the good weather and the warmth if this virus does indeed die outside quite quickly.

"It's incredibly worrying because the numbers are not low enough to have a testing and tracing system take over. What we want to be getting to, is that community transmission is eliminated, you have clusters of cases appearing, and that these are like little fires you keep extinguishing as needed through having a testing and tracing system that can quickly monitor and catch those.

"So we want to be having testing in schools. We need to be treating schools like how we've been treating hospitals and care homes. These are institutions that need to be monitored and teachers need to be tested, older students need to be tested. We don't have yet those monitoring systems in place."

Sage, the government's scientific advisory group for emergencies, has been publishing minutes of early meetings in the pandemic.

Asked whether the scientists sometimes got it wrong, Prof Sridhar said: "Yeah, I think what underlies this is you don't want a small black box making decisions that's not open to scrutiny. Science is all about peer-reviews, scrutiny, being challenged, having to defend your position and show your data and evidence. And the UK was not doing this.

"A group of scientists and myself wrote a letter right after that March 12 fatal decision to stop tracing and testing, asking to see the evidence and the data because we could not understand it and it was not in line with what scientists across the world were doing ... I think the lesson from this is [the importance of] transparency, diversity at the table, as well as the mistakes that can happen when you have a small group making decisions for a large number of people."

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 09:39

NHS test and trace can track contacts of 10,000 new patients daily, Raab says

Asked what level the government's five-step coronavirus alert system is currently on, foreign secretary Dominic Raab tells Sky News' Sophy Ridge: "We're transitioning from level 4 to level 3. We've made steady progress to get the R level down below 1 ... We've got over 800 fewer cases [since last week]. We've got over 200 hundred fewer people in critical care with coronavirus. I think the deaths are down over that period by 27."

The ONS believes there are 8,000 new transmissions every day in England alone, while the UK's official death toll sits at 38,376, with 215 deaths added to the toll on Friday.

"That is the steady progress that we are making, which means as we transition to step 2 on the roadmap to easing restrictions we can take those steps responsibly, but we just have to be very careful," Mr Raab said.

"If there's any uptick in the number of cases ... we will have to take further measures again and target the virus wherever it may appear. So we're making progress, obviously this is a sensitive moment. But we can't just stay in lockdown forever, we've got to transition. And the more we transition through careful steps, the more I think we'll build up confidence in the approach we're taking."

Pushed on whether the government is moving more quickly than its own alert system permits, Mr Raab says: "That alert system is obviously decided independently by the scientists ... Obviously we as the elected politicians, we take the decisions, but at every step along the way we have taken that advice and the reason we can take the steps we are taking tomorrow ... is precisely because not just the R level is down below 1, but also because we're making the progress on the data as I described." 

He denied that the government had expected to be at stage 3 by now but was "ploughing on anyway".

He claims the government has the capacity to ensure that it can trace the contacts of 10,000 infected people on a daily basis. Sage meeting minutes show that when the decision was made to abandon contact-tracing in March, PHE could trace the contacts of just five patients. 

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 10:04

Trade-off between economy and public health 'not the way we view it', Raab says

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has responded to the fact that multiple senior scientific advisers have broken ranks to warn it is too soon to lift England's lockdown.

"In a pandemic, it would be surprising if they all agreed in a uniform unanimity. They don't," he told Sky News. "That's why we have that group, to test the evidence, to test the scientists' views based on that evidence, and then we as elected politicians have to take the final judgement call. That's inherent in this process, as it is with all pandemics in all countries around the world."

He added: "In reference to your point about whether it was some kind of trade-off between the economy and public health, that's not the way we view it. Our overriding priority is to protect life, but we also know that we've got to protect livelihoods, jobs, the economy, because that props up all of our crucial public services.

"And so the steps that we're taking are not some binary trade-off, because if we have a second peak in the virus, we would end up back in lockdown and that would be bad for public health reasons, but also for the economy - we'd have more protracted economic pain.

"So we're taking measures now which are based on both the public health considerations but also crucial for the economy, so we're taking sure-footed steps and we can take the second step because of the progress we've made."

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 10:12

Raab unable to say how many people have been contacted in new test and trace scheme

Asked how many people the new NHS test and trace scheme has traced so far, Dominic Raab said: "Well we've got the tracers up and running, 25,000 recruited, and we've got the ability to make sure ..."

Andrew Marr interrupted to ask how many people have been traced so far.

"I don't have the exact figures because it's only been running since Thursday but they be will set out this week," Mr Raab said. 

"What I can tell you", he added, is that it will be able to trace the contacts of 10,000 new cases every day, saying: "That's one of the reasons we can have the confidence to take the further steps we're taking on Monday."

Mr Raab said there "absolutely" will be a "world-beating" system going tomorrow, but also added: "It's been going since Thursday, we are up and running, but we don't start from the same position as other countries who were hit by the previous pandemics and therefore had trialled and developed a tracing system. They have been more advanced."

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 10:38

Raab insists we are 'transitioning to level 3' of government's Covid alert system

The government's Covid alert system indicates that level 4 should see "current social distancing measures and restrictions", sparking concern that the government is moving more quickly than even its own guidance permits.

Dominic Raab: "We are transitioning from level 4 to level three, so we remain at level 4 until that has been..."

"So we're at level 4?" asks the BBC's Andrew Marr

Mr Raab: "As I said, we're transitioning. And the reason we're able to take the steps we're taking tomorrow ... is because of the progress we've made, and you can see that in the data."

Mr Marr: "I'm sorry to be picky about it, but are we at level three yet?"

Mr Raab: "No, we're transitioning from 4 to 3."

Andy Gregory31 May 2020 10:59

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