Just 1,500 out of a promised 18,000 coronavirus contact tracers had been hired at the start of this week, a cabinet minister has said.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis disclosed the figure as a mid-May deadline set by the government for the 18,000 recruits passed.
Contact tracing, which involves establishing all those who may have come into contact with someone who displays symptoms of the virus, is seen as a key part of plans to lift the UK’s long-running lockdown.
Under a “test, track and trace” strategy outlined by health secretary Matt Hancock earlier this month, a smartphone app to help map the outbreak was intended to be rolled out nationwide by mid-May.
The app would be supported by a 18,000-strong “army” of contact tracers and Hancock said at the start of May: "The aim is to have the whole thing up and running by the middle of this month. We’re starting already, we’ve already started the recruitment.”
He added: "Of the 18,000 we have thousands already recruited and we’re making very rapid progress.”
But Lewis told Sky News on Friday that the government had so far received 15,000 applications from people looking to join the programme - with just 1,500 in post at the start of this week.
He said: “I don’t think we’ve got to 18,000 just yet. I think there’s about 15,000 applications - we’re looking, as you say to get up to 18,000.”
Asked if that figure referred to applicants rather than those who have acutlaly been hired, Lewis said: “Yes. And, you know, it’s fantastic that people have applied for that and we would encourage more people to think about applying for that.“
And, pressed on when the 18,000 target would now be met, the cabinet minister responded: “Well, as I say, we’re encouraging people to apply for that. We’ve got 15,000 applications at the moment. I know the health team are working through those applications as quickly as possible.”
Lewis said of the numbers hired: “As of this morning I’m not sure exactly how many... have been hired.
“I know earlier in the week it was about 1,500. It will have gone up since then. Obviously these things move up very quickly once the process starts.”
The admission from the Northern Ireland secretary came as Labour argued that as many as 50,000 physical contact tracers may need to be recruited to properly map the spread of Covid-19 across the country.
In a letter to her opposite number Michael Gove, shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves pounced on reports that outsourcing firm Serco has been asked to lead the drive on hiring the tracers.
She said: ”Contact tracing is a skilled role, handling highly sensitive information, the consequences of which are profound both in terms of public health and the economy.
“Yet job advertisements for manual contact tracing staff are presented as a ‘work from home opportunity’, at an hourly rate of less than the living wage. Applicants are required to have their own computer access; and it is not clear who their direct employer will be.”
And Reeves asked: “Why is the government only funding the recruitment of 18,000 manual contact tracers when many experts believe as many as 50,000 may be needed?”