Coronavirus: Launch track and trace now or risk NHS being 'overwhelmed'

21 May 2020, 08:50

The government has been urged to launch its track and trace system as soon as possible
The government has been urged to launch its track and trace system as soon as possible. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Time is "running out" for the government to launch its test, track and trace system if it wants to avoid a second wave of coronavirus, NHS leaders have warned.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, has warned the government the health service is at risk of being "overwhelmed" unless a clear tracking and tracing strategy for Covid-19 is mapped out.

The NHS chief said hospitals, GPs and staff for the 111 service have “not had clear information and instructions about what their role will be in this process.”

He added: "We need clarity on exactly how this is going to work.

"Our colleagues at the Confederation are right: unless we can absolutely have clarity on that quickly, there clearly will be a risk to the NHS that we get overwhelmed in a second peak, which nobody wants."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also been warned by Niall Dickson, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, that "time is running out" for the government to implement its testing and tracing strategy.

He wrote to the minister to express his "concern" 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.

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said he has "great confidence" a test, track and trace system will be in place by 1 June - the same day schools are set to gradually reopen.

He said 25,000 staff would be in place by the start of next month and they would be capable of tracking the contacts of up to 10,000 new coronavirus cases a day.

Mr Dickson responded to this saying it would be "very much welcome," but stressed that "delivery and implementation will be critical, and we await further details."

Test, track and trace - or TTT - involves testing people for coronavirus, tracking its spread, and then tracing the people with whom an infected person has come into contact with.

Health officials began contact tracing for every positive diagnosis of coronavirus following the first confirmed cases in January.

However, once the number of Covid-19 cases began to surge in the UK, by mid-March widespread contact tracing was abandoned.

It is now seen as a vital strategy for overcoming the virus, while avoiding a second wave, and eventually relaxing lockdown measures.

Minister for Security James Brokenshire echoed the UK leader in saying he is also "confident" that a track and trace system will be in place by 1 June.

He told Sky News that the government's app, which has been trialled on the Isle of Wight, "will be introduced in the coming weeks in parallel" with the system employing track and trace staff.

He said: "But obviously, the priority being to get these track and tracers trained, in place, that is what the prime minister is very confident about.

"We're confident the system will be there, able to track and trace around 10,000 people on 1 June."

He added: "We want to see the app rolled out, work continues at pace in relation to that, learning from the experience in the Isle of Wight, so that that can be adopted more broadly."

Mr Brokenshire explained that the app provides "extra support" to track and trace staff.

He then said the government is responding to feedback given on technical issues with the tracing app so far.

"I think it is important that we put in place all the things we can as quickly as we can," he continued.

"We obviously want to see that the app is put in place well and effectively, learning from the experience in the Isle of Wight and dealing with... all of the feedback that we're receiving on some of the technical issues, to ensure that that is as strong as we can make it.

"But that should not stand in the way of the introduction of the track and trace arrangements that I've explained."

Mr Johnson's official spokesman told a Westminster briefing that the app "is only one part of the system" and that there was a "tried and tested" strategy for tracing and testing people.

However, Newcastle University's Allyson Pollock, a professor of public health, said the government's approach had raised several 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.

"There are 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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