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UK government unveils NHS Test and Trace service to combat Covid-19

UK government unveils framework to stop the spread of coronavirus, but contact-tracing launch date not revealed

Even though its NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app is still officially under development and being trialled in the Isle of Wight, the UK government has announced the NHS Test and Trace service, which will form a central part of the government’s coronavirus recovery strategy.

The service officially launches on 28 May across England and will fundamentally set out to help identify, contain and control coronavirus by reducing its spread.

Going forward, anyone who tests positive for coronavirus will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and will need to share information about their recent interactions. This could include household members, people with whom they have been in direct contact, or within two metres for more than 15 minutes.

People identified as having been in close contact with someone who has a positive test must stay at home for 14 days, even if they do not have symptoms, to stop unknowingly spreading the virus.

Members of their household will not have to stay at home unless the person identified becomes symptomatic, at which point they must also self-isolate for 14 days to avoid unknowingly spreading the virus. Guidance is also available online at gov.uk/coronavirus.

NHS Test and Trace comprises four tools to control the virus: Test, Trace, Contain and Enable. The first component is said to be based on the increasing availability and speed of testing that will underpin NHS Test and Trace.

The second, when someone tests positive for coronavirus, the NHS Test and Trace service will use dedicated contact-tracing staff, online services and local public health experts to identify any close recent contacts they’ve had and alert those most at risk of having the virus who need to self-isolate.

This will be complemented by the roll-out of the contact-tracing app which the UK government said will be available in “the coming weeks once contact tracing is up and running”. This would represent a huge miss for the UK government which, when originally reporting the app, announced assurances from NHSX, the digital innovation unit of the NHS, that it would be available in May 2020. When it was apparent that the development timescales were slipping badly, the government revised this to be ready by 1 June – a target that now also seems to be missed.

The third component, Contain, will see a national Joint Biosecurity Centre work with local authorities and public health teams in PHE, including local Directors of Public Health, to identify localised outbreaks and support effective local responses, including plans to “quickly” deploy testing facilities to particular locations. Local authorities have been supported by £300m of new funding to help local authorities develop their own local outbreak control plans. 

The final stage, Enable, is designed for the government to learn more about the virus, including as the science develops, and explore how it could go further in easing infection control measures.

In addition to the contact-tracing app, the NHS Test and Trace service will deploy 25,000 dedicated contact-tracing staff working with Public Health England who will have the capacity to trace the contacts of 10,000 people who test positive for coronavirus per day, and can be scaled up if needed.

The government claims that the roll-out of the NHS Test and Trace service has been made possible by its testing regime which it asserts will “soon” have the capacity to carry out 200,000 tests a day. This includes 50 drive-through sites, more than 100 mobile testing units, and three so-called “mega laboratories”.

Commenting on the launch, UK health and social care secretary Matt 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.”

“At this critical point in the nation’s response to coronavirus, we are launching a service that will enable us to emerge more safely from lockdown,” added professor John Newton, national coordinator of Test and Trace, and part of a team involved in developing and subsequently defending the UK contact-tracing app.

“To control the virus, we still need to continue with social distancing and good hygiene, but we also now have a comprehensive Test and Trace service to stop new cases spreading. This approach will allow us to gradually return to more normal personal, social and economic lives, while recognising that we have to stay alert and respond rapidly to any advice from the new service.”

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