The government’s coronavirus test and trace scheme is “up and running” and “successful”, the health secretary has declared.
Matt Hancock told the daily COVID-19 briefing that the “vast majority” of new cases of the coronavirus have been contacted since the system was launched last week – but he could not give a specific figure.
“I’m very glad to report that those who are asked to isolate by the contact tracers are expressing the willingness to do so and we track that very carefully,” the health secretary said.
He added: “The level of incidence of disease has come down and so actually we have more capacity than we need, this is a good thing.”
Mr Hancock continued: “I think to err on the side of having too many contact tracers is the right side to err on.
“I’d rather have too many people trained and ready to go.”
The health secretary also told the briefing that a total of 39,045 people have now died in all settings after testing positive for the virus.
This is 556 higher than the equivalent total announced yesterday, although the government reported the day-on-day change as 111.
The difference in the two figures is down to how deaths are being incorporated into historic data retrospectively.
As the lockdown in England continues to be eased, which includes a phased reopening of schools and groups of up to six people now being permitted to meet outside at a distance, the test and trace system is seen as key to doing this safely and keeping COVID-19 under control.
A total of 25,000 contact tracers have been recruited for the programme, which sees people who test positive for the coronavirus provide details of their close contacts.
They are then told to self-isolate in order to avoid spreading COVID-19 to others.
An accompanying app, which is being piloted on the Isle of Wight, is also expected to launch in the coming weeks.
Testing tsar Professor John Newton told the briefing: “The numbers of tests feeding through and contacts being identified are high, so we are very pleased with the level of completeness.
“It’s operating pretty much as we had hoped.
“Of course, of the numbers of new cases, not all of them need to go into the contact tracing process – so if it’s a case in a care home of somebody who is already part of a known outbreak or if the case is already known to the public health service then they don’t need to be contact traced.”
Professor Newton said the number of contacts have been lower than modellers have forecast, but were similar to the levels seen on the Isle of Wight.
In response to a question from Sky’s deputy political editor Sam Coates, Mr Hancock said the test and trace system was an “important” part of moving from “national, blanket measures” to a “more targeted approach”.
But he said that lockdown measures could be reimposed on a national scale if necessary.
At a local level, the health secretary said there were a range of options to tackle local outbreaks.
This could include restricting new admissions to a hospital if there is an outbreak there, Mr Hancock said.
He added that the powers available were as broad as the “legal toolkit” that was used for the national lockdown.
Giving his verdict after the briefing, Coates said: “The good news is it’s a success, according to Matt Hancock and John Newton.
“The puzzling news is they can’t give any evidence to back that up.
“What you saw was successive journalists trying to ask them to justify the claim that it’s going well.
“This comes down to data.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said “transparency is crucial to building public confidence”.
“A successful functioning test, trace and isolate regime is vital for safe easing of lockdown,” he said.
“But the health secretary failed yet again to reveal the numbers of people actually tested nor could he tell us how many contacts have been traced so far despite boasting that the test and trace system was now ‘up and running’ and ‘successful’.”
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