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Matt Hancock says 21,000 coronavirus contact tracers now hired as tests expanded to all symptomatic people over five

Health Secretary Matt Hancock updated MPs on the test, track and trace plan.

3 min read

More than 21,000 coronavirus contact tracers have now been hired across England, the Health Secretary has confirmed.

Matt Hancock revealed the figure as he expanded the eligibility for Covid-19 testing to everyone over the age of five, in the latest move to bolster the Government’s “test, track and trace” strategy to map the spread of the virus.

Contact tracing, which involves establishing all those who may have come into contact with someone who displays symptoms of the virus, is seen as a key part of plans to lift the UK’s long-running lockdown.

The “army” of contact tracers promised by the Government are expected to work alongside a new smartphone app and a nationwide testing programme to help map the outbreak and contain new cases.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Hancock said: “Today I can announce to the House that everyone aged five and over with symptoms is now eligible for a test. That applies right across the UK, in all four nations from now.

The Health Secretary added: “We’ll continue to prioritise access to tests for NHS and social care patients, residents and staff. And, as testing ramps up towards our new goal of total capacity of 200,000 tests a day ever more people will have the confidence and certainty that comes with an accurate test result.”

And he confirmed that the Government had now “recruited over 21,000 thousand contact tracers in England”. 

He said: “This includes 7,500 healthcare professionals who will provide our call handlers with expert clinical advice. 

“They will help manually trace the contacts of anyone who has had a positive test and advise them on whether they need to isolate. 

“They have rigorous training with detailed procedure designed by our experts at Public Health England. They have stepped up to serve their country in their hour of need.”

The Cabinet minister said the Government now had “the elements we need to roll out our national test and trace service: the testing capacity, the tracing capability and the technology”.

The announcement was given a cautious welcome by Labour, with Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth saying his party had “long argued that the safe way to transition out of lockdown is to have a test, trace and isolation strategy in place“.

But he demanded details on the speed of testing being carried out by private firms.

And the Labour frontbencher questioned the speed at which the Government had updated its list of symptoms for coronavirus to include a loss of taste and smell - a move announced by the country's chief medical officers on Monday.

Mr Ashworth asked: "Many healthcare specialists were making these warnings eight weeks ago, so can he explain why there has been a time lag in updating the case definition?"

Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper meanwhile said: “The minister has just confirmed that there will be thousands of contact tracers who are not medically trained but who will be handling highly sensitive patient information and issuing clinical advice given to them.”

And she called for new legislation to ensure data handed over to the contact tracing programme would be properly handled.

But Mr Hancock insisted that such a move would not be needed because the existing Data Protection Act will “do the job”.

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