Coronavirus: Boris Johnson announces test and trace system will launch tomorrow

Tracers will hunt down anyone who has been within two metres of an infected person for more than 15 minutes without protective equipment

Ashley Cowburn,Lizzy Buchan
Wednesday 27 May 2020 17:29
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Boris Johnson says UK did not have capacity for test, track and trace ready

People will be asked to isolate for 14 days if they come into contact with someone infected with coronavirus – even if they do not have symptoms, Boris Johnson has announced.

The new NHS test and trace programme will launch on Thursday across England, involving an army of 25,000 contact tracers and an additional 25,000 people working to process tests.

Tracers will hunt down anyone who has been within two metres of an infected person for more than 15 minutes without protective equipment.

These people will be contacted and asked to isolate at home for a fortnight. The government does not plan to fine those who refuse to obey the isolation order but ministers do have the power to sanction people if necessary.

However, an NHS app – currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight – that aims to alert individuals after they have come in contact with an infected person will be launched at an undetermined date.

Similar measures viewed as vital in reducing the transmission rate of Covid-19 as the lockdown is eased have already been introduced in countries such as Singapore and Germany.

Speaking during a session of the Commons Liaison Committee, the prime minister said the system would go “live” tomorrow and it would rely on the “common sense of the public to recognise the seriousness of this”.

Questioned on the system, Mr Johnson told MPs that sanctions, including fines, would be kept “on the table” and the government would be reviewing the public’s cooperation and compliance with the track and trace system.

In response to questions on the new system from the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the prime minister admitted the UK did not learn the lessons of past pandemics in developing sufficient capacity for testing and tracing.

Mr Johnson said: “We did have a test, track and trace operation but unfortunately we did not have the capacity in Public Health England.

“To be absolutely blunt, we didn’t have the enzymes, we didn’t have the test kits, we just didn’t have the volume, nor did we have enough experienced trackers ready to mount the kind of operation they did in some other east Asian countries, for instance.

“And I think the brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of Sars or Mers and we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed.”

Baroness Harding, who is leading the programme, told a Westminster briefing on Wednesday that anyone with symptoms can contact the NHS to order a test. Any information given to contact tracers will be “entirely confidential’, she said when asked if people would risk fines if they have broken lockdown rules to visit a partner.

Baroness Harding added: “The purpose of this is to enable us to move from all of us being in national lockdown to a model where there is individual isolation if you are ill with the disease, or if you have been in close contact with someone who is ill with the disease, and local action where we see individual cases starting to spike.”

Asked if she could guarantee that tests would be turned around in 24 hours from tomorrow, Baroness Harding said: “No, we will not return 100 per cent of tests within 24 hours tomorrow but we will get closer and closer to it with each passing day.”

“This is a really large-scale national citizen service that is starting tomorrow and it will get better and better with each passing day... That’s what we should be aiming for, the speed of this process end-to-end is extremely important, as is its scale and reliability and quality and we will improve that as we learn.”

Baroness Harding added that the NHS app will not be ready for the launch of the testing programme but it would be “up and running soon”.

She said: “I view the app as the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself… the app will definitely help in terms of speed of identifying and alerting contacts but we need to have all of us across the country really understanding the guidance on isolation and really practising social distancing and establish all of that and then the app will come later.”

The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, welcomed the launch of the test and trace service, but said there remained “three gaps” in the plan, including the failure of the UK to meet the “international standard” for the 24-hour turnaround of Covid-19 tests results, with many healthcare providers averaging times between three to seven days.

He added: “It’s good to see the emphasis on developing local test and trace plans, for example to manage the risk of Covid spreading in potential hotspots like railway stations and places of worship. But this work only started last week and will take several more weeks to complete.

“And NHS trusts can’t resume ordinary services like elective surgery until they can rapidly test all patients who need to visit an NHS site for treatment and regularly test all the staff who will be providing that treatment. There are still no clear plans to do this consistently across the country.

“So whilst today’s announcement represents good progress, and an important milestone, there is still a huge amount to do. It would help if the government acknowledged this and was clear about how and when these gaps will be filled rather than pretending a world class service will be available on 1 June when it clearly won’t.”

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