A much-anticipated mass coronavirus contact tracing programme is being launched in England on Thursday, with health secretary Matt Hancock telling Brits they have a “civic duty” to take part.
The system, known as NHS Test and Trace, will be run by a staff of 50,000 and will allow the country to move from a national lockdown to individual groups of isolation.
Speaking in front of the Liaison Committee of senior MPs on Wednesday afternoon, Boris Johnson said the "new test and trace operation" will be up and running today,
The programme is seen as vital in containing the virus and preventing a second wave of infections as the country starts to come out of lockdown.
It will work by requiring anyone with Covid-19 symptoms to request a test by dialling 119 or going to NHS.UK/coronavirus, and if it comes back positive the team of tracers will then start tracking down anyone who has been in close contact with them - defined as within two metres for 15 minutes or more.
Those people will be then told to self-isolate for fourteen days, even if they are not displaying any symptoms themselves.
Health secretary Matt Hancock, who appeared in front of a new "NHS Test and Trace" slogan on the Downing Street lectern, on Wednesday appealed to people’s better nature to abide by the rules.
"It is your civic duty, so you avoid unknowingly spreading the virus and you help to break the chain of transmission," he said.
Sanctions ‘on the table’
The government has hired 25,000 contact tracers, who will work with around 5,000 clinicians and the 20,000 people already working in the coronavirus testing programme to run the system.
It will rely on people to follow the rules in place on informing the NHS when they have symptoms, and those who have been around them sticking to the strict 14-day quarantine period.
Initially it will be launched without any fines or penalties in place for not complying, but Hancock does have the power to impose them if the public does not abide by the rules.
Johnson said: “This is something where we’re relying on people’s public spiritedness, on their willingness to cooperate and defeat the disease.”
He said in other areas, such as tracing HIV infections, the system does work, and therefore he is “confident” it will for Covid-19 too.
But the PM added “of course we would keep sanctions on the table”.
Officials also want to stress that if contact between two people was made by either one of them breaking lockdown rules, that information will not make its way to the police.
As it is an NHS service, the details of contacts will be kept fully medically confidential, so people are being told they cannot get a fine by revealing who they have spent time with.
The tracers are simply interested in getting hold of whoever may have contracted the disease and who they were in contact with, not the reasons behind it, organisers want to make clear.
And they stress the system is fully compliant with data protection laws, amid privacy concerns about people personal information and contact details.
They say the model being used is the standard practise for public health infectious disease contact tracing.
Speaking to ITV's Peston on Wednesday night, Hancock confirmed that those who had already had the virus could be asked to go back into self-isolation under the scheme.
"Yes, including me," he said. "I tested positive, I recovered, and I have had one of these antibody tests, I know I have the antibodies.
"But what we do not yet conclusively know, and this is a million dollar question, is if you have antibodies, does that mean you are both immune to getting the disease yourself again and critically, does it mean you can't pass the disease on to other people?
"Because some people, like children, very very rarely actually get symptoms but they still pass the disease on."
The test and trace programme is launching without a much-vaunted NHS app, which is still being trialled on the Isle of Wight.
But Danny Mortimer of the NHS Confederation, which represents hospitals, said: "Much has been made of the importance of the app, but while its rollout is still some weeks off, this will not be the make-or-break element.
"Local involvement is really the key, and we are hopeful this will reduce the risk of a second wave of infections, thus saving lives and protecting the NHS."
He added: “It is now absolutely critical that any problems are identified and ironed out as quickly as possible so that all parts of the programme can be delivered, and that the government follows through on its promises of testing expansion.
"We would also call for more detail on how the impact of the 14-day self-isolation requirement can be mitigated in the health and care workforce.”
Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said his party had "long called for a functional testing and tracing regime" as a key part of easing the nationwide lockdown – and claimed that the row over Dominic Cummings' trip to Durham during the curbs could dent confidence in it.
"The government's decision to abandon contact tracing in mid-March was a huge error leaving a huge gap in our defences against the virus," he added.
“We will need everyone asked to cooperate fully with NHS Test and Trace’s stay at home instructions to keep all of us safe.
"It’s why Boris Johnson’s support for Dominic Cummings is both dangerously irresponsible and undermines vital public health messaging. It’s remains clear there is still one rule for Johnson’s friends and another for the rest of us.”