Major problems reported as contact tracing system launched

Harriet Line, PA Deputy Political Editor

Contact tracers have begun tracking down people who have come into close contact with coronavirus sufferers, amid reports of major problems with the NHS Test and Trace system.

The service – seen as key to easing lockdown restrictions – has been rolled out across England with the help of 25,000 contact tracers, while an accompanying app is delayed by several weeks.

The Department for Health admitted “some staff initially encountered issues logging on to their systems”, while MPs said they were told the programme would not be operational at a local level until the end of next month.

Baroness Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, is said to have made the admission in a call with parliamentarians on Thursday morning.

Labour former minister Ben Bradshaw said he asked Lady Harding whether his local authority in Devon – a pilot area for the scheme – was correct in thinking local plans did not need to be in place until the end of next month.

He told the PA news agency: “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.”

Mr Bradshaw said it was in “complete variance” with Boris Johnson’s pledge to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions last week that the system will be up and running by June 1.

“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,” Mr Bradshaw said.

“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.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock laughed off claims in an interview with Sky News that he had rushed to introduce the system amid the fierce political row over Mr Cummings’ alleged lockdown breach.

Tory anger over the trip to Durham by the Prime Minister’s chief adviser has continued to mount, with at least 38 Conservative MPs calling for Mr Cummings to resign or be sacked.

In other developments:

– First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that Scotland will move to phase one of a four-step plan to ease out of lockdown, with people now allowed to meet a person from another household outside

– 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

– 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

– Up to 4,500 easyJet staff could lose their jobs under plans announced by the airline, while new figures showed the number of passengers arriving in the UK by air fell from around 7.1 million in January to 112,300 in April

– Dr Katie Smallwood from the World Health Organisation in Europe warned that an effective track and trace system was “crucial” to lifting lockdown measures for good and preventing a second wave of infections

(PA Graphics)

Mr Hancock said people contacted as part of the NHS Test and Trace system must stay at home for 14 days, adding that the “instructions are absolutely clear”.

He said he believes “the vast majority” will self-isolate voluntarily under the new system and that people will not receive penalties for failing to abide by the guidelines “in the first instance”, but he left open the possibility of making it mandatory for people to stay at home in the future.

Asked why people should follow the new self-isolation rules, when even Tory MPs believe Mr Johnson’s most senior aide breached them, Mr Hancock said that it is in “the whole community’s interest”.

“I think that the vast majority of people will understand that it is in everybody’s interest that those who are in higher risk follow the requests from the NHS, these instructions, and it is very important that they do.

“And, frankly, this is about how, as a country, we get out of this lockdown in the safest possible way, short of having a vaccine or an effective treatment, which obviously we’re working on but we don’t yet have,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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 is still dependent on scientific advice, as is the use of private gardens for socialising.

The road map to easing the lockdown contained the possibility that one household could form a social “bubble” with one other in a mutual group, but it is 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 lockdown on March 23.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir 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”.