The health secretary has been told “time is running out” for the government to launch its testing and tracing system if a possible second wave of coronavirus is to be avoided.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a testing and tracing system considered essential for easing the current coronavirus lockdown will be up and running by June 1.
June 1 is also the date earmarked for the gradual reopening of schools in England.
But Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation – which represents organisations across the healthcare sector - wrote to Health Secretary Matt Hancock because his members were “concerned” over an apparent lack of a clear strategy.
“We would therefore urge you to produce such a strategy with a clear implementation plan ahead of any further easing of the lockdown,” Mr Dickson said in his letter.
He said Mr Johnson’s plan to launch the system by June 1 was “very much welcome”.
“But delivery and implementation will be critical, and we await further details,” he added.
Test, track and trace – TTT – means testing people for coronavirus, tracking the spread of the virus, then tracing the people with whom an infected person has come into contact with, telling the to self-isolate if necessary, preventing the onward spread of the respiratory disease.
Health officials began contact tracing for every positive diagnosis of coronavirus following the first confirmed cases in January.
Widespread contact tracing was abandoned in mid-March as the number of cases soared in the UK, but it is now seen as a crucial component of efforts to safely ease the lockdown while avoiding a second wave of Covid-19 infections.
An NHS smartphone app - being trialled on the Isle of Wight - which uses bluetooth to track contacts, had been promoted as a crucial part of the forthcoming track and trace system, however ministers appear to be peddling back on its importance.
Home Office Minister James Brokenshire told ITV News the "core component" of track and trace will be a "tried and tested" system using human tracers.
He said 25,000 contact tracers - made up of call handlers and medical professionals, will be hired by the start of June to "physically make that contact" by emailing and phoning contacts of coronavirus patients.
He said the "focus" is on scaling up the system so that up to 10,000 contacts can be made a day.
He said he's "confident" that system will be in place by June 1, but the app will be rolled out in the "weeks ahead".
Newcastle University’s Allyson Pollock, a professor of public health, said the Government’s approach had raised numerous questions.
“This is an extraordinary experiment that the Government’s put in place, and none of us know how it’s going to work,” she said on BBC Radio 5.
“There’s so many questions to ask about this and why they’re bypassing the local systems, and the local health system and the local community. Because you have to know your local community. You can’t put the fire out from the centre.”
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