In Depth

Track-and-trace: what did the government promise and when?

Ministers ‘like to think’ app will be ready this month

NHS bosses fear that the coronavirus test-and-trace system will not be fully functioning until as late as October, according to reports.

The Guardian says that Tony Prestedge, the chief operating officer of the NHS scheme, admitted in a webinar to staff last week that the system would be “imperfect” at launch, only reaching world-class operational levels in three to four months.

The disclosure comes as scientists warn that “lockdown measures should not be eased until the test-and-trace service is well established”, the newspaper adds.

When is the system expected?

Th new test-and-trace system was launched in England and Scotland last week, with thousands of so-called contact tracers texting, emailing or calling people who test positive for Covid-19 to ask who else they have spent time around.

However, the roll-out of the NHS contact-tracing app has been delayed until later this month.

A pilot scheme of the app was launched on the Isle of Wight in early May. Matthew Gould, chief executive of the health service’s tech NHSX, said the app will launch across the rest of the UK in two or three weeks’ time if the test proves success, reports The Telegraph.

The app was originally due to be ready to launch alongside the manual track-and-trace system.

According to The Guardian, a video recorded on 27 May – a day before the government announced the scheme was launching – shows chief operating officer Prestedge telling staff: “We know it will be imperfect, we know it will be clunky but we ask you to help us improve the service.” 

The project should be “world-class by the time that we are moving towards the September or October time”, adds Prestedge, a senior banker who was drafted in to help run the programme.

Meanwhile, a leaked email from the boss of Serco - one of the main companies contracted to deliver the system - reveals how he feared the scheme would get off to a bumpy start, but hoped it would “cement the position of the private sector” in the NHS supply chain. 

In a message forwarded to his staff, chief executive Rupert Soames said: “There are a few, a noisy few, who would like to see us fail because we are private companies delivering a public service. I very much doubt that this is going to evolve smoothly, so they will have plenty of opportunity to say I told you so.”.

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What has been promised so far?

17 April: The new strategy of contact tracing was announced in Parliament by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The minister said the UK would need to increase its ability to isolate new Covid-19 cases and trace their contacts before lockdown could be eased, as Bloomberg reported at the time.

“We do need to have comprehensive test, track and trace in place as soon as possible and we need to get the technology right,” Hancock told the House of Commons Health Committee, chaired by his predecessor Jeremy Hunt.

“We need to have the people and we’re building that resource, and obviously we need to have the testing and we’re ramping that up as well.”

20 May: Boris Johnson told MPs that the test-and-trace operation would be “world-beating” , reports ITV News. “We will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating, and yes, it will be in place by 1 June,” the prime minister said.

27 May: The NHS Test and Trace system was launched. Hancock said: “As we move to the next stage of our fight against coronavirus, we will be able to replace national lockdowns with individual isolation and, if necessary, local action where there are outbreaks.

“NHS Test and Trace will be vital to stopping the spread of the virus. It is how we will be able to protect our friends and family from infection, and protect our NHS. This new system will help us keep this virus under control while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally.”

3 June: Johnson told MPs that “as a result of our test, track and trace system… thousands of people are now following our guidance, following the law, and self-isolating to stop the spread of the disease”.

The PM also hit back at criticisms by Labour leader Keir Starmer that a “critical element” of the system is missing, reports Metro.

“I’m afraid he’s casting aspersions on the efforts of tens of thousands of people who have set up a test, track and trace system in this country from a standing start. We now have 40,000 people engaged in this,” the prime minister insisted during the stand-off at Prime Minister’s Questions.

5 June: Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi says the track-and-trace app will “be running as soon as we think it is robust”.

“The app, we are working flat out. We want to make sure it actually does everything it needs to do and will be in place this month…I can’t give you an exact date, it would be wrong for me to do so,” Zahawi told BBC Question Time.

Asked to confirm that the app would be rolled out nationwide this month, he said: “I’d like to think we’d be able to manage by this month, yes.”

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