The end of a nationwide lockdown could be on the horizon, as the Health Secretary announced new plans to test and trace coronavirus cases.
The NHS Test and Trace service went live on May 28, in England, with 25,000 contact tracing staff and the capacity to trace the 10,000 contacts per day.
Announcing the new service 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.
“This new system will help us keep this virus under control while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally.”
The Government did not launch a contact tracing system until now because it needed to flatten the curve of infections first, Mr Hancock said, during a Downing Street briefing.
The NHS contact tracing app, currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight, will also form part of the new Test and Trace strategy in the coming weeks.
But what is the new strategy and how will it work?
1. Self-isolate and test
Anyone with symptoms including a persistent cough or temperature must self-isolate for at least seven days.
Anyone else in your household should self-isolate for 14 days from when you started having symptoms, as studies have shown people can be asymptomatic for up to two weeks.
Mr Hancock said it is “your civic duty” to isolate and follow the rules of the Test and Trace strategy.
“This will be voluntary at first because we trust everyone to do the right thing, but we will make it mandatory if that’s what it takes,” Mr Hancock added.
“If we don’t collectively make this work, the only way forward is to keep the lockdown. The more people who follow the instructions, the safer we can be and the faster we can lift the lockdown.”
If you are experiencing symptoms you must request a test as soon as possible via nhs.uk/coronavirus or by calling 119.
The capacity for testing will be scaled up, the Health Secretary said, after the launch of the online portal for key workers to order tests in April saw all 5,000 tests booked within two minutes.
Mr Hancock previously aimed for 100,000 tests to be carried out a day in the UK, but this capacity will be expanded to 200,000 per day.
The increase in testing capacity includes 50 drive-through locations and 100 mobile testing units, the government announced.
Testing will also now be available for children under five, in a bid to help the reopening of schools in England from June 1.
A former director of the World Health Organisation has also called for GPs to be drafted in to help lead the NHS test and trace system, with testing hubs at local surgeries.
But, up to 20,000 coronavirus tests a day are taking longer than two days to provide results. Scientists advising the Government on track and trace predict this could lead to a 50 per cent increase in the number of infections.
If the test comes back negative, neither you, nor members of your household, need to continue self-isolating.
Boris Johnson acknowledged that being told to self-isolate was a “huge imposition” but people should be aware of why the Test and Trace programme was needed.
The Prime Minister also warned that if the initial voluntary system was not respected, fines could be introduced for people who fail to comply.
2. Contact trace
If you test positive for the virus you must complete the entire 7-day period of self-isolation.
Members of your household must also complete a 14-day isolation period, from when you first showed symptoms.
Once you test positive you will receive a text or email alert from NHS Test and Trace within 24 hours.
This will provide instructions of how to share details of the people you have been in close, recent contact with. This includes your family or other people you live with, as well as people you have been in direct contact with, or within 2 metres of, for more than 15 minutes.
The information shared will also need to include places you have recently visited and will be handed over via a secure website. For those without internet access, they will be called by one of the 25,000 contact tracers.
The contact tracing team will use the information provided, along with online services and local public health experts, to identify individuals you have had close contact with and alert those most at risk of having the virus that they need to self-isolate.
In the coming weeks, the NHSX Covid-19 app will also be used to aid the contact tracing process.
The app, which has so far been downloaded by 52,000 people on the Isle of Wight, notifies people who have been in “significant contact” with those who have tested positive for the disease.
It works by using Bluetooth signals to detect when two phones come close to each other, and anyone who becomes unwell with coronavirus symptoms can notify the app, which then informs other users.
3. Contain the virus
If someone has been in close contact with an infected person, the NHS Test and Trace service will alert them via text or email.
They will be asked to log into the Test and Trace website so they can communicate with the team, or a contact tracer can call them directly.
For those under 18, they will receive a call from the team and a parent or guardian must give permission for the call to continue.
The individual will be asked to isolate for up to 14-days, depending on when they last came into contact with the infected person.
Members of their household will not have to isolate with them, but must take “extra care” to follow social distancing and hand-washing guidelines.
If that person, or members of their household, do develop symptoms they must book a test via nhs.uk/coronavirus or calling 119.
If the test is positive they must continue to isolate for 7 days. If the test is negative, they must still complete the 14-day self-isolation period, as the virus may not be detectable yet.
Your questions answered
Does my whole household have to isolate?
This advice will only be issued to those who test positive. Those who are self-isolating for 14 days because of close contact with confirmed cases will be told to keep away from the rest of their household as much as possible.
Whose details do I have to provide?
Those who test positive will be asked to hand over all contact details for anyone in their household and anyone they have recently spent at least 15 minutes with, within a proximity of 2 metres. This means mobile phone numbers, email addresses, landlines and home addresses.
Contact tracers hope to contact the majority of people via text or email. But in some cases, they may post warnings out – though this system is likely to be too slow to be much help.
Staff will also attempt to contact relevant companies, so that if a person has travelled by plane, the carrier would be contacted so that passengers sitting nearby could be reached.
What if I do not want to provide details, or if those who I have had close contact with try to persuade me not to hand them over?
The scheme is voluntary, with ministers repeatedly urging the public to “do the right thing”. If compliance is low, penalties – such as fines – may be introduced for non-compliance.
At the moment, ministers are hoping Britons will respond to the plea that the actions of a “tiny minority” of people could ultimately free up to 66 million people from lockdown.
What if my test is negative?
If you suffer symptoms of coronavirus, without having been contacted by the Test and Trace system, and have a test which proves negative, the obligation to self-isolate ends.
However, those who are contacted via the system will be told that they should remain in self-isolation for up to 14 days, even if their test is negative – just in case they are still incubating the virus.
How long will the test take to come back?
On average, tests are currently taking around 48 hours to come back. However, those being administered by drive-through stations are being turned around most quickly, with 84 per cent done within 24 hours.
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Health officials are aware that slow turnaround of tests would make the system far less effective. A study on Wednesday suggested that if contacts are reached within three days of a test being carried out, up to 15 per cent of new cases could be reduced, if four in five people comply with instructions. This could only happen if test results themselves are returned within 48 hours. If the turnaround slips to five days, the number of new cases might only fall by five percent, the modelling shows.
Is the app still part of this?
Health officials are still working on an app, which will mean those who have been in close proximity to those who test positive will be automatically contacted, and urged to self-isolate.
But its rollout has been repeatedly delayed, with officials last night refusing to commit to any date for its launch. Yesterday the Health Secretary insisted it is not being delayed by technical problems, saying officials had learned from the Isle of Wight pilot that rolling out the system where people are asked to isolate, even if they have no symptoms, starts better when it comes “in human form” from contact tracers.
What if I have already had an antigen test, which found I previously had the virus, think I have previously had symptoms, or had a positive antibody test which suggests I have had it at some point?
Officials say this will make no difference to the instructions issued. They say the science is still unclear about how much immunity is conferred from having Covid-19.
Will I only need to self-isolate once?
Not necessarily. Those asked to isolate because they have a positive result can only be asked to do this once. But those being asked to do so as a precaution because of close contact with a confirmed case could see this happen more than once, given that the risks of exposure to different people with Covid-19 could increase as lockdown lifts.
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