What is the NHS Test and Trace system and how does it work?

The NHS Test and Trace system, a scheme that will help people with Covid-19 to track down those they have come into contact with, has been officially launched.

At the daily coronavirus press conference on Wednesday, Matt Hancock said that the system will be vital to stopping the spread of the virus, until a vaccine is found.

The health secretary said that the system will allow the UK to start “doing more of the things that make life worth living, without risking safety”.

The release of the system coincides with an easing of lockdown rules on Friday 29 May in Scotland and on Monday 1 June in England, which will enable people to socialise outside with groups of up to eight in the former and six in the latter.

What is the NHS Test and Trace scheme?

The aim of the NHS Test and Trace scheme, which was launched on Thursday 28 May, it is to prevent further transmission of the coronavirus by tracking down people who have come into contact with those who have tested positive for the virus.

It should allow those who develop symptoms of Covid-19 to be tested “quickly”, in addition to providing “targeted asymptomatic testing of NHS and social care staff and care home residents”, the NHS states.

The scheme was launched with the help of 25,000 contact tracers, who were tasked with tracking down those who have been in close contact with people infected with Covid-19.

If they find someone who has been in close contact with someone with the virus, then they will contact them and tell them that they need to self-isolate for 14 days.

An app to accompany the system was supposed to be ready for mid-May, but has been delayed for several weeks to an unspecified date.

The app is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight before becoming more widely available.

How does it work?

If someone develops symptoms of the coronavirus, they are first advised to self-isolate for seven days, while members of their household are told to self-isolate for 14 days from the point the infected person started showing symptoms.

They can then ask to be tested for the virus, which the NHS states must be done “in the first five days of having symptoms”.

“Do not wait. Ask for the test as soon as you have symptoms,” the health service stresses.

When you are tested for Covid-19, this may take place at a drive-through regional testing site, at a mobile testing unit, in an NHS facility or you may receive a home testing kit.

However, the NHS adds that there is “very high demand” for tests with priority being given to people in hospital and essential workers, which is why “even if you are successful in requesting a test, we cannot guarantee you will get one”.

If you receive your test result and it is positive, the NHS Test and Trace service will contact you either through email, text or phone. Text messages will come from the NHS, while calls will come from 0300 0135000.

“Children under 18 will be contacted by phone wherever possible and asked for their parent or guardian’s permission to continue the call,” the NHS adds.

You will then be asked to sign into the NHS Test and Trace contact tracing website at contact-tracing.phe.gov.uk, where you will be asked to provide contact details for people you have been in contact with.​

It will not be possible for most people to have the details of everyone they have been in contact with, so the tracers will ask to be taken step-by-step through your movements.

They will then attempt to find the contact details for anyone they think might be infected, and will try to warn them.​

If you are informed that you’ve been in close contact with a person who tested positive for Covid-19, you will need to stay at home for 14 days from the day you were last in contact with them.

You are advised to not leave your home for any reason, to not have any visitors at your home except in the case of essential care and to “try to avoid contact with anyone you live with as much as possible”.

“People you live with do not need to self-isolate if you do not have symptoms,” the NHS adds.

“If you live with someone at higher risk from coronavirus, try to arrange for them to stay with friends or family for 14 days.”

What is close contact?

Anyone who lives in the same household as an infected person, has been within one metre of them, or has been within two metres for at least 15 minutes, will be considered a close contact.

To be classified as a close contact, a person will have had to have been within that proximity to an infected person during the two days before they showed symptoms and during the seven days after.

While the NHS Test and Trace scheme is currently voluntary, Mr Hancock has indicated that the government could eventually force people to participate if required.

What criticism has the Test and Trace scheme received?

Following the launch of the Test and Trace scheme, it was reported that MPs had been told during a private conference call with Baroness Dido Harding, chair of the service, that it won’t be “fully operational” until the end of June.

This news came amid widespread reports of issues with the system, which saw tracers unable to log onto their computer systems.

Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper said the government was following a “high risk strategy” by easing lockdown restrictions four weeks before the scheme is “fully operational”.

The government was recently warned by a leader in disease control that the Test and Trace scheme will be “a car crash” as currently designed.

Gary McFarlane, a director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), revealed the government had shunned an offer from the institute to help train thousands of contact tracers, instead turning to Serco and other outsourcing giants.

Only a small number of local council environmental health workers who are already skilled in tracing victims after outbreaks will be used.

Mr McFarlane warned: “We must absolutely have local intelligence on the ground,” adding: “I’m concerned that, if the system is not well designed with a very clear purpose identified at the outset, it could be a car crash.”

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