Coronavirus test and trace system 'won't be fully operational until end of June', MPs told

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener

The coronavirus test and trace system will not be fully operational until the end of June, the head of the programme is said to have told MPs.

Baroness Dido Harding, who is heading up the NHS Test and Trace system, admitted the scheme may not be ready on a local level, MPs claim after a call with her on Thursday.

The Government launched its tracing system in England on Thursday with the help of the newly hired 25,000 contact tracers, however the accompanying app to go with the programme has been delayed by several weeks.

The scheme will see tracers contact people who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 and tell them to isolate for 14 days in a bid to limit the spread of disease. The new system has been touted as one of the key instruments in helping ease lockdown.

Dido Harding (top right) is heading up the NHS Track and Trace system but admitted on Thursday it will not be fully operational until the end of June. Credit: PA

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who was in the call, said he asked Lady Harding whether his local authority in Devon - which is being used as a pilot for the scheme - was correct in thinking local plans did not need to be in place until the end of next month.

He said: “I simply asked her to clarify the timing on the rollout and I told her what Devon had told me – and she confirmed that, yes, the local operational rollout of this would not happen until the end of June.

“I wasn’t surprised by that because it was what Devon had told me but it is in complete variance with what Boris Johnson promised Keir Starmer at PMQs last week when he promised a world-beating test, trace and isolate system would be operational by Monday.

“And of course yesterday in a great flurry Matt Hancock announced this and launched it today. And it does seem rather worrying to me that the Government keeps launching things or announcing things that either aren’t ready or it cannot deliver on.

“One can’t help but suspect that the reason they have chosen to do this in the last 24 to 48 hours is to try to divert attention away from Dominic Cummings.”

Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper added: “Dido Harding just told me that the #NHSX app described by PM a week ago as “world-beating” is in fact just a “cherry on top” of the tracing system: which itself won’t be fully operational until end June... 4 weeks after lockdown restrictions ease. This is a high risk strategy.”

  • Professor Sian Griffiths explains how contact tracing works

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Test and Trace begins today, not June, and local councils already have plans in place to respond to COVID-19.

“To support the rollout of Test and Trace, all councils have been asked to extend these existing plans into dedicated Local Outbreak Plans by the end of June. Last week we gave all councils £300 million new dedicated funding to support this.”

Health minister Nadine Dorries disputed the claims made by the Mr Bradshaw and Ms Cooper that the system was not "fully operational".

Replying to Mr Bradshaw, she said: “Also told you, as did I, that local councils already have a plan in place to deal with outbreaks of local infections and that whilst they worked on developing local outbreak management plans for #COVID19 they would be deployed. Disappointing misinterpretation.”

And replying to Ms Cooper, she said: “Not what you were told and you are conflating two aspects of the service. The App is a big fat juicy cherry on the cake coming v soon.

“Local outbreak management plans in place already being enhanced and developed. All together, if we all play our part, a world beating response.”

  • Major issues on first day of track and trace system

As track and trace was rolled out in England on Thursday, the Department for Helath admitted “some staff initially encountered issues logging on to their systems”.

There were also reports that people were struggling to access the website, although the Department for Health said this was not the case.

Rupert Soames, the head of Serco Group which is one of the firms hired by the NHS to help run the test and trace system, admitted there would be “lumps and bumps” in the rollout of the scheme.

The Sun newspaper reported there were severe issues with training and the management of the system.

One tracer said they found out Thursday would be their first day on the job during the announcement launch of test and trace at the Government’s daily coronavirus press briefing.

And the highly anticipated coronavirus track and trace app, which is being designed to sit alongside the tracing system launched on Thursday, has also been delayed for several weeks.

The app will form part of the NHS Test and Trace service and “is due to be launched in the coming weeks once contact tracing is up and running”.

Scotland is launching its own version of track and trace on Thursday, while Northern Ireland already has its own system up and running. Wales are expected to launch their track and trace scheme in early June.

Trade unions have called for statutory sick pay to be increased from £95 per week to £260 amid fears people who have been told to isolate at home will go into work as they can’t afford to stay at home.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “If workers can’t afford to self-isolate, then they will be forced to keep working.

“That will put them, their workmates and their local community at risk, and undermine the entire Test and Trace programme.

“The Government must extend statutory sick pay to everyone – no matter what they’re paid – and raise it to the level of the real Living Wage, £260 per week.”

  • How will the track and trace system work?

The track and trace scheme has been touted as one of the keys to easing the coronavirus lockdown, but there are accusations the scheme has been rushed out to divert attention away from the ongoing row involving the Government’s handling of the Dominic Cummings saga.

Boris Johnson announced the launch of the scheme on Wednesday, which will see people with coronavirus having their contact with other people traced in a bid to limit the spread of the disease.

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.

Boris Johnson announced the track and trace system on Wednesday. Credit: PA

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.

The rollout of the track and trace system will also give local authorities the ability to develop tailored outbreak control plans, working alongside the NHS and other stakeholders.

From there, local authorities will be able to formulate action plans to identify and contain potential outbreaks in places such as offices, housing complexes, care homes and schools.

Data on the virus’s spread will be shared with local authorities through Joint Biosecurity Centre to inform local outbreak planning, so teams understand how the virus is moving.

Localised lockdowns in areas where coronavirus cases are on the rise have been among some of the suggested solutions when easing restrictions.

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