The government has defended its position on track and trace, after NHS leaders warned that action to control the future spread of coronavirus (Covid-19) is coming late in the day.
Security minister James Brokenshire said he remains “confident” that a test, track and trace system will be in place by 1 June – the earliest date by which primary schools in England and some non-essential shops could reopen.
However, Brokenshire admitted the NHS app would not be ready in time and suggested “technical issues” were behind its hold-up, just over a week after health secretary Matt Hancock said it would be rolled out across England in “mid-May”.
It comes as the NHS Confederation issued a stark warning that time is running out to finalise a track and trace strategy to avoid a potential second surge of Covid-19.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the body which represents health and care leaders, has written to Hancock saying there could be “severe” consequences to staff and patients if the right system is not put in place quickly.
He added that the lockdown should not be eased further until a clear plan is in place, which must involve local leaders with experience in contact tracing.
In the letter, he said: “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.
“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.”
Dickson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the detail was coming too late and urged the government to “get on” with it.
He said: “We are absolutely clear that contact tracing is the right thing to do, it is absolutely critical, it has got to be in place to prevent any notion of a second surge if the lockdown is being further released.
“I think, like everyone else, we support the government’s determination to set up an effective system.
“Our concern is that this has been done quite late in the day, we haven’t yet seen the detail.
“In particular, I think we’re concerned at the role of local contact tracing and how that complements what is happening at national level.
“The directors of public health have expressed concern at not being involved until very recently”.
He said the government had made some “later moves” to involve local leaders “but we need to join up the national with the regional and the local”.
He added: “I think it is being done very late in the day and we really do need to get on with this.
“I’m not saying it is impossible to do it, but I think there is concern among those at local level because we’ve seen – not occasionally, we’ve seen often – where national stuff is done with the best of intentions, but unless the local context is understood it doesn’t really work as well as it should.”
He said it was “only recently, to be brutally honest” that the government’s rhetoric changed to recognise the role of local officials who understand contact tracing.
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Speaking on 21 May, Brokenshire said the government was dealing with the feedback given on technical issues with the app so far.
He told Sky News: “I think it is important that we put in place all the things we can as quickly as we can.
“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 any… 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.”
He added: “We’re confident the system will be there, able to track and trace around 10,000 people (per day) on June 1.”
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