Health Secretary Matt Hancock does not know how many contact tracers have already been hired
The Health Secretary last week announced that some 18,000 staff will be put in place as part of the mass-testing scheme
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night admitted that Britain may not hire its ‘army’ of 18,000 contact tracers until mid-May.
Ministers last week announced a three-step battle plan to ease the UK out of lockdown, which included ramping up a contact tracing programme.
But when asked about the topic in last night’s Downing Street conference, Mr Hancock said he did not expect the tracers to be ready until mid-May.
Mr Hancock also did not know how many had already been recruited. MailOnline today asked the Department of Health for an update on recruitment but has yet to hear back.
Mr Hancock said: ‘We hope to have the contact tracers in place before or at the same time as the app goes live. We’re expecting that to be ready by the middle of May.’
He also said requirements must be put in place for anyone who comes into contact with an individual who has tested positive as part of the plans.
The successful implementation of ‘test, track and trace’ is viewed as key to easing the current state of lockdown and to preventing a second peak. The World Health Organization says tracing is the ‘backbone’ to curbing any epidemic.
But Mr Hancock has previously admitted that there was ‘no automatic link’ between this setup being ready and lockdown coming to an end.
Health experts have already hit out at the scheme, saying the UK will need as many as 100,000 tracing staff to replicate the success of countries like South Korea.
But New York appears to be following similar maths to Britain – state governor, Andrew Cuomo, said he would look to employ 30 tracers for every 100,000 residents – a total of around 5,700 for the 19million people who live there.
The same calculation for the UK’s population of 66million would lead to a requirement for 19,800 contact tracers – 1,800 more than the Government’s target.
Mr Cuomo said existing civil servants would be used but more people would have to be employed for the purpose, the Wall Street Journal reported.
He said: ‘This is something that no one has ever done before.’
It comes amid growing concern ministers will fail to reach their pledge of carrying out 100,000 coronavirus tests each day.
Only 43,000 were conducted on Monday, the most recent day for which figures are available. It means Britain is not even halfway to reaching the target.
Yesterday it was revealed the long-awaited NHS coronavirus contact tracing app for smartphones could be ready in a fortnight.
The Government will launch a widespread contact tracing scheme to track down people who have been in touch with infected patients
HOW WOULD AN NHS CONTACT-TRACING APP WORK?
According to researchers, the app being developed by NHSX would likely work as follows:
- Users install the app on their smartphones.
- The app logs every time the device comes into close proximity of another app user’s phone.
- Users exhibiting coronavirus symptoms self-report on the app.
- The app tells these users to self-isolate, along with their household.
- It also notifies any other users logged as having recently come into contact with them/
- These users also isolate, along with their households, and so on.
The app will notify users if they have been in close contact with a COVID-19 patient. It is currently being trialled at a Royal Air Force base in Yorkshire.
Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX – the health service’s tech arm – said tests were going well and it could be rolled out nationwide in two weeks.
Users self-report coronavirus symptoms or log they have been officially diagnosed, and the app alerts everyone who has come into contact with them.
Mr Hancock said last night: ‘The more people who download the app and keep their Bluetooth on, the more effective the app is going to be.’
Pressed on how many people would need to use it for it to work, he added: ‘There is no answer other than as many as possible. If everybody downloads it, it will just be more effective at spotting who people have been in contact with.’
The app – a key part of Number 10’s ‘test, track and trace’ initiative – will help play a role in easing the draconian lockdown and getting Britons back to work.
Epidemiologists have warned that the app will need at least 60 per cent of the UK – or 40million people – to sign up for it to be effective.
But downloading it will not be mandatory, so there are no guarantees that enough Britons will use it for it to have any effect.
‘SILENT CARRIERS’ OF COVID-19 MAKE UP A FIFTH OF ALL THOSE IDENTIFIED THROUGH CONTACT TRACING
‘Silent carriers’ of coronavirus make up a fifth of those identified using contact tracing, researchers have found.
Experts said having such a high proportion of virus carriers with no idea they are infected makes contact tracing programmes essential to controlling the pandemic.
A detailed description of a contact tracing project in the Chinese city of Shenzhen reveals 19.5 per cent of close contacts who tested positive for coronavirus had no symptoms.
The researchers, from Johns Hopkins in the US and Shenzhen Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said these ‘silent carriers’ could easily pass on the virus without knowing they had it.
The contact tracing scheme – one of several being considered as Britain draws up its own ‘test, track and trace’ programme – reveals such an approach rapidly increases the speed at which new cases are identified.
Experts say this is key to controlling the spread of the virus as lockdown measures are lifted in the coming weeks.
The Shenzhen programme, described in a paper in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, revealed contact tracing increased the speed at which new cases were identified by two days – 3.2 days with contact tracing, down from 5.5 days previously.
Researcher Dr Ting Ma said: ‘The experience of Covid-19 in the city of Shenzhen may demonstrate the huge scale of testing and contact tracing that’s needed to reduce the virus spreading.
‘We urge governments to consider our findings in the global response to Covid-19.’
The NHS app will work by recording every time two people are within a certain distance of each other for a prolonged period of time using Bluetooth technology.
When one user registers themselves as being infected, or experiencing tell-tale symptoms, the app will automatically ping notifications to everyone who they could have passed it to.
It might advise them to self-isolate or get tested, depending on their age and vulnerability.
NHSX says the alerts will be sent anonymously so users do not know who may have infected them.
Similar approaches have been used with success in Singapore and South Korea but there are concerns about privacy and that not enough people will sign up to use it.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo said state officials there will also rely on contact tracing as an essential element of emerging from coronavirus lockdown.
The state, which is battling one of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, will also set up a ‘circuit-breaker’ alert system which could signal for authorities to bring back lockdown restriction if the virus reappears.
If hospitals become over 70 per cent full or the rate of spread rises above a one-to-one ratio in public, the government would be alerted that it needed to tighten up social distancing regulations again, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Contact tracers will be essential to tracking people who might have the disease.
The job of tracers is to quiz anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus about who they have been in contact with.
Infected people are also asked about where they were around the time they became ill and the days before it.
Tracers make a list of people considered to have been put at risk by the patient, and those people will be notified that they might have the coronavirus.
If contacted, people will be asked to self-isolate and to be vigilant about changes in their health and about social distancing. If they become ill they will be tested.
If a contact tests positive, then the exact same process will be conducted on them and their social network.
The idea is to keep track of how the virus moves through social circles and to try to stay a step ahead of it and prevent wider spread.
Council staff and civil servants are expected to be at the frontline of this effort.
NHS Confederation, a body that represents healthcare organisations, said contact tracing will ‘help us track and control’ the virus when lockdown is eased.
Its chief executive Niall Dickson said: ‘The recruitment of an army of 18,000 tracers will be critical, though any strategy will need to be linked into local organisations.’
In the US, campaigners have raised concerns about the way apps such as these could breach people’s privacy.
It would have to share location data to be able to work, they said.
The American Civil Liberties Union said: ‘The systems must be widely adopted, but that will not happen if people do not trust them.
‘For there to be trust, the tool must protect privacy, be voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device rather than in a centralized repository.’
NHSX has been working with Google and Apple to develop the app for both main smartphone operating systems – Android and IOS.
But the NHS app is set to use a different model to the tech giants, despite concerns raised about privacy and performance.
The NHS will use a centralised database to store users’ information and send alerts when there has been a match.
This is at odds with Apple and Google’s ‘decentralised’ approach – where the matches take place on users’ handsets.
The tech firms believe their effort provides more privacy because it limits hackers or authorities from tracking specific individuals exact footsteps.
But UK health bosses believe their centralised system will give the more insight into the spread of the virus.