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NHS bosses demand more detail after Boris Johnson promises June 1 launch for coronavirus track and trace system

The NHS Confederation called for ‘a strategy with a clear implementation plan ahead of any further easing of the lockdown’.

4 min read

Britain is at risk of a “second wave of infections” that could overwhelm the NHS unless a detailed track and trace strategy is in place soon, hospital bosses have warned.

The NHS Confederation, which represents health services in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, said health leaders had “yet to see detail” on Boris Johnson’s pledge to have a “world-beating” contact tracing system up and running by 1 June.

And they warned that time was now “running out” to finalise a plan and “avoid a potential second surge” 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 crucial component of plans to lift the UK’s lockdown.

An “army” of contact tracers is expected to work alongside a new smartphone app and a nationwide testing programme to help map the outbreak and contain new cases.

But junior health minister Lord Bethell this week confirmed that the app - currently being trialled on the Isle of White - had been delayed from its initial launch window of mid-May after those using it saw it as a “supplementary and additional automated means of contact tracing“.

Instead, the Government has decided to put “human-contact tracing at the beginning of our plans and to regard the app as something that will come later in support,” he said.

Speaking at PMQs on Wednesday, Boris Johnson vowed to recruit 25,000 tracers by June 1, with a “world-beating" contract tracing system up and running by then and able to trace the contacts of 10,000 new cases per day.

But, in a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson said he was “concerned that time is running out to finalise a test, track, and trace strategy to avoid a potential second surge”.

Mr Dickson added: “We are 10 weeks into the pandemic and developing a strategy with a well worked through local base should have been in place much sooner.

“Our members are concerned that unless there is a clear strategy, then there must be a greater risk of a second wave of infections and serious health consequences.

“We would therefore urge you to produce such a strategy with a clear implementation plan ahead of any further easing of the lockdown.”

"We have received no private assurances on this matter and we would like to see the contact tracing actually in place before schools do start adding to the R rate" - National Education Union chief Kevin Courtney

While the NHS Confederation boss welcomed Mr Johnson’s 1 June pledge, he warned that “delivery and implementation will be critical” and said his members still “await further details” of how it will work in practice. 

“As you know, our members are health leaders from across the country, and they are keen to support you and your team in making the contact tracing programme as effective as it can be,” he said.

But he added: “These health leaders have warned us that this is a matter of protecting the NHS: if we do not rapidly instigate the right system, involving the right people, then the ramifications for the NHS, including its staff and its patients, could be severe. 

“We are concerned that they are not yet reassured that this is in place.”

The message from NHS chiefs echoes that given by some of the UK’s education unions, who are demanding that a full contact tracing system is established to spot and isolate cases before they agree to the June 1 reopening of schools.

Commenting on Mr Johnson’s pledge, National Education Union general secretary Kevin Courtney, said: “We are pleased the Prime Minister is listening to our concern about having contact tracing working before wider school opening.”

But he warned: “We have received no private assurances on this matter and we would like to see the contact tracing actually in place before schools do start adding to the R rate. 

“We would urge the Prime Minister to respond to our other points including that all of the science considered by SAGE around school opening questions should be put in the public domain and they should engage with the trades unions in negotiations about how to open schools safely.”


Speaking to Sky News on Thursday, Cabinet minister James Brokenshire insisted that the Government’s track and trace plans could get going without the NHS app in place.

The Northern Ireland Secretary said: "It's important that we put in place all the things that we can, as quickly as we can.

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

"That should not stand in the way of the track and trace arrangements... They can be effective."

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