The new “test and trace” system designed end the lockdown will come into force tomorrow (Thursday May 28)
It’s designed to stop coronavirus spreading even as life gets closer to back to normal – or close to it – with children attending school and shops re-opening.
And if there are future outbreaks of the virus, local lockdowns will be introduced rather than nationwide measures. People in specific cities, towns or even housing estates could be barred from leaving their homes, with local councils responsible for overseeing the restrictions.
Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire have been chosen to pilot one of the most important elements of the scheme, by drawing local lockdown plans.
Here’s how the scheme will work:
- If you have symptoms that might be the Covid-19 coronavirus then you self-isolate – which means staying at home – and apply for a test, which is sent to you (in the past, most people were simply told to stay at home and not to ask for a test)
- If the test is positive, you will be contacted by a tracer, who will ask you to list places you have visited and people you have been close to recently, starting from two days before you felt ill
- Anybody you were near for a significant period of time will be contacted, told that they may be at risk of having the virus, and asked to stay home for two weeks – even if they have no symptoms.
- People asked to stay home will be eligible for statutory sick pay, whether they are ill or not. If they do develop symptoms then they too will be expected to apply for a test.
The Government has also commissioned a telephone app, which will keep track of who you have been close to, by connecting via bluetooth to other nearby phones.
Ministers hope the app, currently being tested in the Isle of Wight, could be available to the general public across England as soon as next week. For the time being, people who test positive for Covid-19 will have to check their diary if they have one, or depend on their memory to work out who they have been close to.
Tracers will speak to people who have been infected and talk through their movements, in a bid to jog their memories. They will be asked to identify people they have been within two metres of for more than 15 minutes, and anyone they have been within a metre of for more than a minute, as well as naming places they have been to.
A similar system is already in place in Germany, and was actually used here in the UK in March, in the early stages of the health crisis.
People who need a test will be able to apply for a test through a website, at http://nhs.uk/coronavirus, or by calling a special hotline. The number to apply for a test will be 119.
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The hope is that this system will prevent serious outbreaks and control the rate of reproduction of the virus – the figure known as “R”. The Government has warned that if R rises above 1, the lockown may have to be reintroduced in full.
Officials stress that the test and trace scheme will only work if people co-operate, for example by asking for a test if they feel ill and staying at home if they are asked to do so.
But it will also allow the authorities to identify areas where coronavirus appears to be spreading, allowing a local lockdown to be introduced. Councils will be responsible for overseeing these.
The govermnent have chosen 11 areas to pilot the creation of “outbreak control plans”, which will be put into action to deal with outbreaks as needed. The aim was to involve a range of different areas with different types of communities, from rural Northumberland to inner-city London boroughs.
Their plans will be used as examples of good practice for other local authorities.
Officials say the aim is to break down the single national battle into dozens of smaller ones. If each of those can be won, then the overall war against coronavirus can be won without requiring a national lockdown.
The Government has already recruited a national volunteer force of 750,000 people who will be asked to help areas in lockdown, for example by delivering food to households.
Ministers say the aim is to allow people to live “as normal a life as possible” but warn that the country faces “a new normal”, at least until a vaccine is developed, if that happens. They also stress that the test and trace scheme will allow the national lockdown to be relaxed over time, but it will not end or be significantly reduced overnight.
Health and Social Care Secretary 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.
“NHS Test and Trace will be vital to stopping the spread of the virus. It is how we will be able to protect our friends and family from infection, and protect our NHS.
“This new system will help us keep this virus under control while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally.”