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Sat, 24 October 2020

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The Breakfast Briefing: What you need to know as the coronavirus Test and Trace programme gets underway

The Breakfast Briefing: What you need to know as the coronavirus Test and Trace programme gets underway

The Test and Trace programme is seen as a key part of living the nationwide coronavirus lockdown

5 min read

Your essential morning guide to what’s moving in Westminster from the PoliticsHome team.

Anyone hoping for a quiet day after Boris Johnson’s story-heavy Liaison Committee grilling might want to look away now: it’s another big one.

While the Dominic Cummings row rumbles away in the background (Penny Mordaunt, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd are the latest to stick the knife in), there’s a sense the storm may be starting to pass, with Keir Starmer this morning urging Boris Johnson to get “back on track” and focusing his fire on exactly how the major new NHS Test and Trace programme launching across England from 9am is going to work out in practice.

Matt Hancock has already told Brits they have a “civic duty” to take part in the system, which will see that army of contact tracers help shift the country from a national lockdown to individual pockets of isolation. The programme is seen as vital in containing the virus and preventing a second wave of infections - and its launch comes on the day we will learn whether those crucial five tests have been met to allow Step Two of the lockdown-easing plan to kick in.

The system will see members of the public told to self-isolate for fourteen days, even if they are not displaying any symptoms themselves. But the Government is not going heavy-handed on this one, with the PM telling Liaison yesterday that ministers would instead be “relying on people’s public spiritedness, on their willingness to cooperate and defeat the disease” to get it right. However, as Hancock made clear on Peston last night, he’s not ruling out penalties for people who don’t comply. “We have the powers, Parliament granted me the legal powers of enforcement and we may have to bring those in,” he said. “But I would far rather that we didn't and my view is that people will do as they're instructed."

The Government’s critics - including Tory former Cabinet ministers - believe this whole thing should all have been up and running far, far sooner

The Health Secretary also confirmed that having previously had Covid-19 - as he has - does not mean a person might not be asked to quarantine again if they’re contacted by the NHS team, pointing out that health authorities still do “not yet conclusively know” the answer to the “million dollar question” of whether having antibodies for the virus means someone is immune. And he’s already told BBC Breakfast this morning that the “onus” will be on employers to pay the wages of staff who are asked to self-isolate by the NHS contact tracing team. “When you’re instructed to go home by the NHS that is the equivalent of being off ill,” he said.

Of course, the Government’s critics - including Tory former Cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark - believe this whole thing should all have been up and running far, far sooner. Aside from the colourful back-and-forth over Cummings, arguably the most substantive moment at Liaison yesterday came when Boris Johnson a said a failure to “learn the lessons” of the 2002 Sars pandemic was partly to blame for the UK’s slow switch to a mass testing programme for the coronavirus.

“We did have a test, track and trace operation,” he said of the early days of the UK’s response. “But unfortunately, we did not have the capacity in PHE, in Public Health England, to be absolutely blunt, we didn’t have the enzymes, we didn’t have the test kits, we just didn’t have the volume. Nor did we have enough experienced trackers really to mount the kind of operation that they did in some other eastern Asian countries, for instance.”

That frank admission - and canny attempt to shuffle some of the blame onto previous governments - will likely be a gift to Labour when the next PMQs rolls around.

The party is so far hammering home the “constructive” opposition message on test and trace, urging the country to “cooperate fully” with the instructions to “keep all of us safe”. But, this being politics, Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth just couldn’t resist tying it all back to the big row over the PM’s top aide. "It’s why Boris Johnson’s support for Dominic Cummings is both dangerously irresponsible and undermines vital public health messaging. It’s remains clear there is still one rule for Mr Johnson’s friends and another for the rest of us.”

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING TODAY

Nicola Sturgeon is set to announce the first easing of Scotland’s lockdown restrictions at her daily 12.30pm press conference today. The Scottish First Minister is expected to allow people to meet up with another household group outside and ease restrictions on non-contact sports including golf and angling.

The UK government’s 5pm press conference should see the announcement on whether those crucial five tests have been met to allow step two of the lockdown easing - including reopening schools and some non-essential shops - to go ahead.

In non-corona news, over in Brussels, top EU negotiator Michel Barnier will attend this morning’s meeting of the Conference of Presidents to discuss the state of play in talks with the UK. Here’s David Frost’s take from yesterday. He joins Michael Gove in front of the Lords EU committee at 2.30pm.

And Labour leader Keir Starmer has the latest in his ‘Call Keir’ Q&A effort to reconnect with voters - today chatting to people in Doncaster and Southampton from 1.30pm.


Sign up here to get PolHome's FREE Breakfast Briefing email in your inbox every weekday morning before 8am - PLUS Westminster's only Sunday AM round-up and an evening update straight after the coronavirus press conference ends 

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