The NHS smartphone app for tracking people who have been in contact with Covid-19 patients will not be ready for 1 June, when the next stage of the government’s relaxation of lockdown is due to begin, Downing Street has confirmed.
But Boris Johnson pledged that the government’s tracing programme would begin at the start of the next month, meaning it will be under way without the app that has been developed by NHSX and has been under trial on the Isle of Wight for almost two weeks.
The announcement came after Professor Dame Angela McLean, the deputy chief scientific adviser, said an effective track-and-trace system was needed to reopen schools as the government continues to row with unions and teachers over whether it was safe to restart classes.
Prof McLean told the Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that easing of lockdown measures needed to be based on “observed levels of incidence in places that there’s going to be change, not on a fixed date”.
Labour said a track-and-trace system should be in place before schools return.
A spokesperson for Sir Keir Starmer said: “What we are calling for is for the government to try and reach a consensus with teachers’ and parents’ organisations to drive a way through and find a way to respond to those concerns with practical proposals within the next couple of weeks.”
Asked what sort of practical proposals it was looking for, the spokesperson added: “The three things we’ve called for is that, firstly, the government should publish the scientific advice behind the rationale for the 1 June date to create transparency
“Secondly, we’ve said the track-and-trace system needs to be in place and, thirdly, what we’ve said is the government needs to bring parent groups, teachers and trade unions together to try and find a consensus to raise some of the concerns that have been raised.”
Speaking late on Tuesday, junior health minister, Lord Bethell, indicated that the government was no longer trying to get the app: “We have therefore changed the emphasis of our communications and plans to put human-contact tracing at the beginning of our plans and to regard the app as something that will come later in support,” he said.
Asked whether Lord Bethell’s comments were correct, Mr Johnson’s spokesperson told a Westminster virtual media briefing: “I wouldn’t disagree with that. I think that’s straightforward.”
The spokesperson also said that the app was “only part of the system” and declined to give a date for its national roll-out, saying only that it would happen “in the coming weeks”.
Trials on the Isle of Wight have been hit by a number of teething troubles, including the app failing to work on some models of phone and swiftly draining users’ batteries. Privacy campaigners have also raised concerns about a system which records and temporarily retains the numbers of anyone within a short distance of the user’s phone, so they can be identified and tested if the user falls ill with Covid-19.
Outsourcing giant Serco, which is training staff, also apologised for accidentally sharing the email addresses of some 300 contact tracers.
Sir Keir said the lack of effective tracing of infected people amounted to a “huge hole in our defences” and compared the grim UK death toll to places with intensive testing and tracing such as Germany and South Korea.
The prime minister accused Sir Keir of “feigning ignorance” on the figures, telling MPs the government was making “fast progress” in testing and tracing, and there will be 25,000 trackers who are able to cope with 10,000 new cases a day.
Mr Johnson went on: “So we’re making fast progress in testing and tracing and I have great confidence that by 1 June we will have a system that will enable us, that will help us very greatly to defeat this disease and move the country forward ... it will be in place by 1 June.”
But cabinet minister Robert Buckland made clear that the full “test, track and trace” system initially envisaged by ministers will not be ready by the end of this month.
“I’m hoping we’ll see the tracing system start to work by that time,” he said.
“I think it won’t necessarily be as widespread and as full blown as we’d like. I think that will develop over the next several weeks, over the next month or so.”
Liberal Democrat digital spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: “With the Coronavirus crisis leaving the most vulnerable at risk, the government continues to waste valuable time and undermine public confidence by experimenting with a new tracing app when there are already effective models it could and should use.
“An app alone will not bring an end to the lockdown, but a safe and effective app could play a role in keeping people safe with a strategy to test, trace and isolate.
“The prime minister and his government have serious questions to answer about these delays. To restore public confidence and get a grip of the virus, the Liberal Democrats are urging the government to rapidly upscale their tracing and testing capacity and bring forward a new ‘safe trace app law’ to ensure that any new app will keep people safe.”
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