Government faces fresh pressure to ramp up contact-tracing recruitment

Ministers are under fresh pressure to ramp up recruitment for the Government’s track-and-trace programme as it emerged that only 1,500 contact tracers out of a promised 18,000 had been appointed by the start of the week.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said while “about 15,000” applications have been received, just 1,500 people had been hired for the programme – which is seen as key to allowing the UK to lift the most stringent coronavirus lockdown measures.

Downing Street later said it was still “on course” to have 18,000 contact tracers next week, and insisted “significantly more” than the 1,500 had been recruited. However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was unable to say how many.

The Government hopes contact tracing will reduce transmission by identifying and alerting people who may have been exposed to the virus, so that they can protect themselves and others around them by self-isolating.

Labour said the process was “rapidly descending into a shambles”, and questioned the reported hiring of private firm Serco to put in place the manual contact-tracing team.

Shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said: “This is fewer than one in 10 of the contract tracers the Government said would be in place by now and a fraction of the 50,000 some experts believe are needed to control the spread of the virus.

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“As with protective equipment and testing, the Government has been too slow and the process is rapidly descending into a shambles.

“Stopping tracing on 12 March was a mistake and bringing in Serco to deal with recruitment appears to have led to delays.

“The Government should not be contracting out responsibility for getting the virus under control. We all want the Government to get this right but the public need confidence ministers are doing everything they can to beat this virus.”

Cabinet minister Mr Lewis earlier told Sky News: “I don’t think we’ve got to 18,000 just yet, I think there’s about 15,000 applications, we’re looking to as you say get up to 18,000.”

Pushed again on how many of the 15,000 applicants have been appointed, he added: “As of this morning I’m not sure of exactly how many of the 15,000 have been hired, earlier in the week it was about 1,500, it would have gone up since then.”

In other developments:

– The number of deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK passed 41,000, according to the latest available data.

– The latest estimate of the range for the reproduction rate of coronavirus – the R value – is between 0.7 and 1.0 across the UK, scientists advising the Government have said. This is a change from 0.5 to 0.9 last week.

– Police chiefs and prosecutors apologised after dozens of people were wrongly charged under new coronavirus laws.

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– New figures show that more than 12,500 people living in care homes have now died with Covid-19, with the majority dying in their care home.

– The PA news agency has verified at least 150 NHS frontline workers who have died with Covid-19.

– Public transport users in London will be hit by fare increases and restrictions on free travel due to the Government’s £1.6 billion bailout of Transport for London.

– Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford criticised Boris Johnson’s Government for a lack of communication on how Britain moves together out of coronavirus lockdown.

– Northern Ireland took its first steps towards easing its coronavirus restrictions, with garden centres and household recycling centres to be allowed to reopen on Monday.

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Meanwhile, signs of regional rebellions to the Government’s approach to easing the lockdown emerged as Liverpool City Council said only the children of key workers and vulnerable children will be allowed in school from June 1.

And the Labour leader of Gateshead Council, Martin Gannon, said his advice continued to be “stay at home” as he called the easing of the lockdown rules “frankly madness”.

Elsewhere, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson sought to reassure parents and families that schools and nurseries are being given the “guidance and support they will need to welcome more children back in a phased way and no earlier than June 1”.

“It's really important that we are absolutely clear what the level of safety is and, if it remains the case that we believe it to be unsafe, we will not back the wider opening of schools.” @cyclingkev, joint general secretary, NEU.https://t.co/L5cVkViZfO

— National Education Union (@NEUnion) May 15, 2020

But teachers unions said a meeting with the Government’s scientific advisers on Friday afternoon left many of their questions unanswered.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the education unions were told that there is still “a lot of uncertainty” about the science.

He said: “For example, we were told children’s likelihood to transmit Covid-19 is not more than adults but only that it may be less than adults. Just yesterday the Office of National Statistics suggested that age does not affect the likelihood of being infected. Today we heard that there are cases where children do act as the index case.”

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