By Adam Vaughan
The UK government has set a new target of recruiting 18,000 coronavirus contact tracers by the middle of May, but is unable to say how much progress it has made. Contact tracing in the UK ended in early March, but health secretary Matt Hanock has said recently that “large scale” tracing will be a key strategy as the country relaxes its lockdown measures.
Asked by New Scientist when the 18,000 people will be recruited by, Hancock said at 10 Downing Street’s daily briefing today: “We hope to have the contact tracers in place before or at the time the [NHS contract tracing] app goes live.” He confirmed the app is due to be released in mid-May.
However, he said he did not have the figures on how many contact tracers there are now. “I knew we’d get some tough questions from the New Scientist,” he said. Public Health England and the Department of Health have been asked for the number.
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On the question of whether the government has a target for how many people will download the NHS contact tracing app, he said: “The more people who download the app and keep their Bluetooth on, the more effective the app is going to be. So there is no answer than any as many people as possible.”
Recent research by the University of Oxford suggested 56 per cent of the UK population would need to download the app for it to be effective at suppressing the epidemic.
Separately, Hancock announced an expansion to covid-19 testing. Staff and patients without symptoms in care homes and hospitals will now be able to get tested, along with all over-65s with symptoms and all workers who have to leave the home to go to work.
The health secretary made clear the lockdown would not be eased until progress on five criteria, on NHS intensive care capacity, falling daily deaths, a decreasing infection rate, testing and PPE capacity, and confidence there is no risk of a second peak of infections that could overwhelm the NHS. “We will not be changing our social distancing rules until our five tests are met,” he said.