Contact tracing system launched amid mounting Tory anger over Cummings

Health Secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street Credit: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright

People who come into close contact with a coronavirus sufferer will be told to self-isolate for 14 days as the government launches its tracing system amid mounting Tory anger over Dominic Cummings’ alleged lockdown breaches.

NHS Test and Trace – seen as key to easing the restrictions – will be rolled out across England on Thursday with the help of 25,000 contact tracers, while an accompanying app is still delayed by several weeks.

Mr Johnson announced the launch of the contact tracing programme on Wednesday, which will see people with coronavirus having their contacts traced in a bid to cut off routes of transmission for the virus and control local flare-ups.

Under the plans, anyone with coronavirus symptoms will immediately self-isolate and book a test, preferably at a testing centre or, if necessary, for delivery to their home.

Their household should start a 14-day isolation period too.

If the test proves negative, everyone comes out of isolation.

But if the test is positive, NHS contact tracers or local public health teams will call, email or send a text asking them to share details of the people they have been in close contact with and places they have visited.

The team then emails or texts those close contacts, telling them they must stay home for 14 days even if they have no symptoms, to avoid unknowingly spreading the virus.

Amid reports by Sky News that some contact tracers do not have their basic systems up and running yet, the Department of Health insisted that the “vast majority of our 25,000 staff have completed their training”.

How NHS Test and Trace works. Credit: PA Graphics

Health Secretary Matt Hancock believes the "vast majority" will comply with the new test and trace system.

He told ITV News: "We think it will be the vast majority, in the same way the broader lockdown measures, the vast majority have complied with.

"We've had this piloted in the Isle of Wight, it's a technique that Public Health England have used in the past and the vast majority of people tend to follow the instructions.

"In the same way that if your NHS doctor phoned you up and was talking about another health concern, then if they ask you to and tell you what you need to do is to isolate at home for 14 days, then that's what you do."

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said testing and tracing was the "key way to break the spread of this virus."

But he told ITV News "it was a big mistake" the government abandoned the test and trace system in March.

"For it to work, we need speed, we need test turnaround in 24 hours, we need to support for people who are asked to isolate for through sick pay but also we need people to co-operate," Mr Ashworth

"My worry is that the government in supporting Dominic Cummings has sent a message that the public health instructions can be undermined, so that's quite irresponsible on behalf of the government, because we need people to cooperate with this."

The launch of the new test and trace system comes amid a growing revolt within the Conservative Party over the prime minister’s chief adviser’s controversial trip to Durham – with dozens of backbench Tories criticising his actions, and at least 38 calling for him to quit or be sacked.

And senior minister Penny Mordaunt admitted there were “inconsistencies” in Mr Cummings’ account – saying “there is no doubt he took risks”.

Boris Johnson continued to stand by his aide and insisted it was time to “move on” when he faced intense questioning over the issue in an appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee of senior MPs on Wednesday.

Dominic Cummings travelled hundreds of miles to Durham. Credit: PA

However, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd added her name to the list of prominent Tory figures saying Mr Cummings should quit.

“Yes I think he should quit, because he’s making things worse,” Ms Rudd said on ITV’s Peston programme.

Ms Rudd said that through various government campaigns Mr Johnson had seen Mr Cummings as a “talisman, a lucky charm, and that he needs him going forward.”

“Dominic has been a winner for him on these campaigns but he’s not instrumental to good government,” she said.

“And my problem at the moment is that Dominic is being negative for good government. He’s a public servant, it should be about service, and at the moment he is not helping this country.”

The launch comes as:

  • The toll of deaths linked to the virus rose to almost 48,000, while at least 188 frontline health and care workers have died after contracting Covid-19.

  • Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said it was “good news” the government has “backed off the claim that it was making last week that we have a world-class test and trace system ready to go from June 1 because we clearly don’t”.

  • The prime minister said he has asked scientists to review the two-metre social distancing rule to see if it can be reduced in an effort to help public transport and the hospitality sector.

  • Mr Johnson promised to look into a condition of the immigration system which has left people with no state financial support during the coronavirus crisis.

  • Weston General Hospital in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, closed to new admissions to “avoid being the cause of an outbreak” after tests revealed a number of staff with no symptoms had coronavirus.

  • Emily Maitlis did not present Wednesday’s episode of Newsnight after the BBC ruled the programme breached impartiality rules over its coverage of the Dominic Cummings lockdown row.

Coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals in England Credit: PA Graphics

Also on Thursday, the government’s plans to ease the lockdown will be confirmed in an official review which Downing Street expects will give the all-clear for schools to begin reopening next week.

Downing Street insiders suggested the easing discussed by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was still dependent on the scientific advice, as was the use of private gardens for socialising.

The road map to easing the lockdown contained the possibility one household could form a social “bubble” with one other in a mutual group, but it was understood that term was being quietly dropped.

The PM has said all non-essential shops in England can reopen from June 15 after he closed them with the imposed lockdown on March 23.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Cummings “broke the rules” and claimed the Prime Minister’s “unwillingness or inability to do the right thing has left the government looking untrustworthy, unprincipled”.

Writing in the Daily Mirror, he said the government had “undermined the very public health advice that is necessary to keep us all safe, just to keep one powerful aide in his job”.

“In times like this, we need good government. A government that we can trust. A government that is entirely focused on saving lives.

“So, I say to the Prime Minister: we cannot go on like this. We cannot lose another week to this farce. We need to get back on track.”

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