Coronavirus: UK track and trace system in place from June – PM

The PM says the UK will have a “world-beating” tracing system from June, as he was accused of leaving a “huge hole” in the country’s coronavirus defences.

Boris Johnson said 25,000 contact tracers, able to track 10,000 new cases a day, would be in place by 1 June.

This also marks the earliest possible date for the gradual reopening of schools and shops in England.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had challenged the PM over the absence of a tracing system since March.

On Tuesday, deputy chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McLean said an effective system for tracing new coronavirus cases needed to be in place before lockdown restrictions could be changed.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir asked why there had been “no effective” attempt to trace the contacts of those infected with Covid-19 since 12 March “when tracing was abandoned”.

Mr Johnson replied: “We have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating and yes, it will be in place by June 1.”

He added that 24,000 contact tracers had already been recruited.

Contact tracing is a system used to slow the spread of infectious diseases like coronavirus, and is already being used in Hong Kong, Singapore and Germany.

One method involves the infected person listing all the people with whom they have had prolonged and recent contact, to be tracked down by phone or email.

Another uses a location-tracking mobile app, which identifies people the patient has been in contact with.

Do not expect a fully-functioning perfect track-and-trace system to be up-and-running by 1 June.

What will be launched will effectively be a prototype. The app may not be ready by that point, but the army of contract tracers will be available.

Given where we are today (and plenty argue mistakes have been made, which means we are in a weaker position than we should be) this is perhaps understandable.

The government does not have the luxury of testing and piloting this behind the scenes for months to come.

So, the system will have to evolve as it goes.

The question is whether it will be robust enough to provide a track-and-trace service that will work on a basic level and help contain local outbreaks, which of course is vital as we gradually move out of lockdown.

The prime minister’s assertion that it will be able to deal with 10,000 new cases a day is interesting.

Surveillance data provided by the Office for National Statistics suggests we may well be seeing around that number.

The work that has been done so far is about to be put to the test.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last week a contact tracing app – part of the test, track and trace plan – would be rolled out across England from mid-May, but that has now been pushed back.

Mr Johnson did not mention the app – currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight – as part of his plan for 1 June. No 10 suggested it would be rolled out later.

The PM also insisted that the UK was now testing more than “virtually every country in Europe”, and promised that the system would be stepped up in the next fortnight.

Leading scientist Prof Hugh Pennington said the pledge was “good news” as it was “essential if we’re going to go anywhere near getting out of lockdown, opening schools”.

“It’s taken a long time. As to world-beating, well we’ve been beaten by quite a few other countries by having such a system running.”

He added that contact tracing was “really very labour-intensive work”.

On Wednesday, NHS England announced a further 166 people had died after testing positive for coronavirus. In Scotland, another 50 people died as well as 14 in Wales and four in Northern Ireland.

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Also at PMQs, Sir Keir queried whether people were being tested in care homes, after the boss of a body representing care homes in England said on Tuesday that there were problems.

Mr Johnson said 125,000 care home staff have been tested and that the government was “absolutely confident” it would be able to increase testing in care homes and “across the whole of the community”.

He added: “And thanks to the hard work of [Health Secretary Matt Hancock] and his teams, we will get up to 200,000 tests in the country by the end of this month.”

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson rejected calls to scrap the “surcharge” for overseas NHS and care home workers to use the health service.

Currently, non-EU migrants pay a fee of £400 per year, which is set to rise to £624 from October.

Sir Keir told the Commons that it should be dropped, saying the Labour Party supported criticism of the fee as a “gross insult” to international healthcare workers.

It comes as the prime minister said the deaths of 181 NHS workers and 131 social care workers had reportedly involved Covid-19.

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