UK on course to launch contact tracing by end of May

The UK government says it has recruited 17,000 people to form England’s army of contact-tracers seeking to contain the spread of coronavirus as lockdown restrictions are eased.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, told Sky News on Sunday that the programme was on course to reach its target of enlisting 18,000, with the first tracers due to start work on Monday.

The new figure marks a rapid turnround. Speaking on Friday, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said that only 1,500 contact-tracers had been recruited at the start of the week. 

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said on Sunday that the first 600 people would begin contact-tracing on Monday, as part of the country’s pilot scheme. The Scottish government also wants to roll out its programme by the end of the month, with the aim of hiring 2,000 people.

The tracers are a crucial pillar of the “test, track and trace” strategy, which ministers hope will help prevent a second wave of infections when schools and more workplaces reopen in June.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has said the programme should be primed to launch by mid-May. However, Mr Gove confirmed on Sunday that the system would only be ready by the end of this month.

Asked later at a briefing on Sunday whether the scheme would be in place by June 1 when schools are due to begin reopening, Alok Sharma, business secretary, only replied that safety measures had been set out for schools to keep people safe.

Ahead of the June 1 deadline, the UK government remains locked in a stand-off with teaching unions and local authorities who are resisting reopening schools.

Mr Gove on Sunday weighed into the dispute calling on those authorities against the plans, to “look to their responsibilities”.

In a sign that the consensus over schools policy is fraying, both Liverpool and Hartlepool city councils have warned it is too soon to open classes for more pupils.

Mr Gove said: “You can never eliminate risk” of contracting coronavirus unless you kept the public “perpetually imprisoned”.

Addressing local authorities, he said: “I respectfully ask them to think again. The clear scientific and clinical advice is that it is safe to have schools reopen, accompanied with social distancing.

“If you really care about children, you’ll want them to be in schools. You will want them to be learning. You will want them to have new opportunities,” he said.

The government issued advice last Monday that nurseries could bring back all children on June 1, while primary schools would take back children in reception, Year 1 and Year 6, with children in small classrooms observing social distancing modelled on the approach Denmark has taken.

However, local authorities, teaching unions and the British Medical Association have all raised safety concerns for teachers and pupils.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation, told the BBC that evidence showed children were “less capable” of spreading the disease. “What we have seen in countries where schools have remained open is that there have not been big outbreaks in schools,” she said. 

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