Coronavirus contact tracing scheme to launch TODAY without NHS app

Do your duty or else: Hancock repeats threat to introduce fines if people don’t obey 14-day isolation orders from coronavirus Test and Trace staff as new scheme comes into effect today 

  • NHS Test and Trace programme will launch this morning but it will go live without the crucial NHSX app 
  • The roll out of the app has been delayed after problems were experienced during a lengthy Isle of Wight pilot
  • It means the new system will initially be entirely reliant on human testimony to slow the spread of the virus
  • Anyone with coronavirus symptoms will be told to self-isolate at home for seven days and to order a test
  • Anyone who then tests positive will be told to provide the NHS with contact details of people they have seen  
  • Contact tracers will then track people down using email addresses and phone numbers telling them to isolate 
  • Those people who are contacted will be told to isolate for 14 days even if they do not have any symptoms
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that the UK’s coronavirus contact tracing programme will finally launch this morning – with the members of the public being forced to isolate if they come into contact with positive individuals or face being fined. 

The NHS Test and Trace system for England will see anyone who develops symptoms told to self-isolate and get tested, with the close contacts of those who are found to be positive for the disease then told to quarantine for 14 days even if they test negative and are not sick. 

Mr Hancock said that adhering to self-isolation would be ‘voluntary at first’ but that he could ‘quickly make it mandatory if that is what it takes’.

He told the daily Downing Street press conference: ‘If you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace instructing you to isolate, you must. It is your civic duty, so you avoid unknowingly spreading the virus and you help to break the chain of transmission.’

The system is being launched without its NHS contact tracing app centrepiece prompting concerns that without the new technology the Government could struggle to tackle the spread of the disease.  

Experts immediately said the complexity of the programme meant there could be ‘several points of failure’ while the Government’s political opponents said ministers should never have largely ditched contact tracing in the first place. 

The launch of the programme was announced by Boris Johnson during an appearance in front of the Liaison Committee yesterday as he admitted the UK’s testing capability was underpowered at the start of the outbreak because the ‘brutal reality’ was Britain did not ‘learn the lessons’ of previous pandemics.  

Insisting self-isolation would only be an imposition for a ‘tiny minority’, he added: ‘I would just say to everybody that it’s worth it because that is the tool that other countries have used to unlock the prison.’ 

Coronavirus testing eligibility was yesterday extended so that anyone with symptoms, even the under-fives, can now get checked. Daily testing capacity is currently 161,000 but the latest numbers showed that only 117,000 were carried out yesterday while photographs showed some drive-through testing sites were empty.

The Government is pinning its hopes of ending the nationwide lockdown on the success of the test and trace scheme but it will go live without the NHSX app which digitally records close contacts and will massively speed up the contact tracing process.

Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, claimed the app is just the ‘cherry on the cake, not the cake itself’ but ministers had wanted the technology, currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight, to roll out nationwide in the middle of this month. 

Problems with its development have seen it delayed which means the new scheme will initially be entirely reliant on an army of 25,000 contact tracers to track people down and prevent a second wave of infections.

Ms Harding did concede that the rollout of the massive new system is unlikely to be straightforward as she said  ‘there will be some kinks, for sure’ as experts warned the roll out could be bumpy.

Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health, University of Edinburgh, said for it to work there would need to be sufficient testing capacity, fast results, confidence in the data handling and a willingness from people to self-isolate.

She said: ‘Given all these steps, we shouldn’t expect that this will work perfectly and there could be several points of failure.’ 

Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said the Government should never have ‘abandoned contact tracing in mid-March’ and and that decision had left a ‘huge gap in our defences against the virus’.  

Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, claimed the contact tracing app is just the 'cherry on the cake, not the cake itself'

Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, claimed the contact tracing app is just the ‘cherry on the cake, not the cake itself’

A drive-through coronavirus testing centre was pictured empty at Manchester Airport as Matt Hancock announced anyone with symptoms can now get checked

A drive-through coronavirus testing centre was pictured empty at Manchester Airport as Matt Hancock announced anyone with symptoms can now get checked

Mr Hancock told the daily Downing Street press conference that test and trace could allow the nationwide lockdown to be eased

Mr Hancock told the daily Downing Street press conference that test and trace could allow the nationwide lockdown to be eased 

HOW NHS TEST AND TRACE WILL WORK

 The NHS Test and Trace programme will be split into two parts. They are: 

Part One

Step One: Isolate. When someone gets symptoms they should self-isolate for seven days. Anyone in the same household should do the same.

Step Two: Test. They should order a coronavirus test online or by calling 119.

Step Three: Results. If a test is positive they must complete seven days in isolation. Anyone in the same household should complete 14 days. If it is negative no one needs to isolate.

Step Four: Contacts. People with a positive test will be contacted via text or email or by phone and told to answer questions and share phone numbers and email addresses for close contacts.

Part Two – For People Flagged As Contacts

Step One: Alert. People flagged will get a text or email. They will then be told what they need to do.

Step Two: Isolate. They will be asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days based on when they last came into contact with the person. Other household members do not need to self-isolate unless symptoms are present.

Step Three: Test. If they develop symptoms all other household members should self-isolate. They should then order a test. If it is positive self-isolation must continue for seven days. If negative you must still complete 14 days in case the virus is not yet showing. 

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WHAT HAPPENS IF TEST AND TRACE IDENTIFIES A LOCAL OUTBREAK?

Every local area will have a coronavirus action plan setting out what will happen if there is a localised spike in infections. 

The focus will be on containing the outbreak. 

If testing data shows there has been a localised spike in cases a public health investigation will be triggered to examine the circumstances and to immediately crackdown on it.

Local testing efforts will be stepped up to determine the extent of the spread and to make sure everyone who is infected is put into self-isolation. 

If the data suggests the outbreak is linked to a certain service or premises it will be shut and subject to deep cleaning before being allowed to reopen. 

During Mr Johnson’s appearance in front of the Liaison Committee he revealed: 

  • The ‘brutal reality’ was the UK had not learned the lessons of previous pandemics and that was why testing capacity was not where it needed to be. 
  • He said that while people will not initially be fined for failing to self-isolate ministers could move to introduce penalties later.
  • Mr Johnson flatly dismissed calls for an official inquiry into Dominic Cummings as he was grilled by senior MPs, saying the outcry was just a ‘political ding dong’. 
  • The PM said he ‘totally understood public indignation’ about the row regarding his aide’s trip to Durham, but insisted some of the allegations about his chief aide were ‘not correct’ and urged people to ‘move on’.
  • He said he hopes that the two-metre social distancing rule can be reduced and has asked scientists to review it as coronavirus is suppressed, in order to aid the return of public transport and the hospitality sector. 
  • Meanwhile, Britain yesterday announced 412 more Covid-19 deaths, taking the official number of victims to 37,460 – as NHS data showed more than half of trusts haven’t recorded a fatality in the last 48 hours. 

Announcing the launch of the contact tracing scheme, Mr Johnson said the ‘brutal reality’ is that the UK did not learn the lessons of past pandemics in developing sufficient testing and tracing capacity.

Responding to former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the PM told the Commons Liaison Committee: ‘We did have a test, track and trace operation but unfortunately we did not have the capacity in Public Health England.

‘To be absolutely blunt, we didn’t have the enzymes, we didn’t have the test kits, we just didn’t have the volume, nor did we have enough experienced trackers ready to mount the kind of operation they did in some other East Asian countries, for instance.

‘And I think the brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of Sars or Mers and we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed.’

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock said testing and tracing will become a ‘new way of life’ as he announced anyone with symptoms can now access a check. 

‘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,’ he said.

‘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.’

Mr Hancock said that adhering to self-isolation would be ‘voluntary at first’ but that he could ‘quickly make it mandatory if that is what it takes’ – a statement echoed by Mr Johnson at the Liaison Committee. 

The new NHS Test and Trace scheme has an overall staff of approximately 50,000 people, comprising of 25,000 contact tracers, 20,000 people administering tests and between 4-7,000 clinicians who will provide expert advice.

Boris Johnson announced the launch of NHS Test and Trace during an appearance at the Liaison Committee. He told MPs that the 'brutal reality is this country didn't learn the lessons of Sars or Mers and we didn't have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed'

Boris Johnson announced the launch of NHS Test and Trace during an appearance at the Liaison Committee. He told MPs that the ‘brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of Sars or Mers and we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed’

The Government hopes that it will soon have the capacity to test 200,000 people for coronavirus every day, using 50 drive-through sites, more than 100 mobile testing units and three so-called ‘mega labs’. 

The aim is for test results to be ready within 24 hours although officials have admitted it will take some time to hit that goal. 

Speed will be of the essence in avoiding a second wave of the disease with contact tracing working best when people who may have been exposed to infection are swiftly removed from society.  

As of this morning, anyone who tests positive for coronavirus will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told to share information about their recent interactions, handing over phone numbers and email addresses of close contacts..

Close contacts will be defined as anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes at a distance of less than two metres with someone who has subsequently tested positive.

WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS OF THE NHS TEST AND TRACE SCHEME? 

1. It is launching without the NHSX contact tracing app. 

Experts believe the app will be crucial to the success of the programme because it can identify contacts much quicker than human contact tracers. The smartphone app uses bluetooth to register other phones it has been near for a prolonged period of time. A date has not been set for the nationwide roll out of the app but without it contact tracing will not be as swift as it would be with it. 

2. It is entirely reliant on human testimony

Without the app the tracking down of contacts will be based on the say so of people who have tested positive. That means people will need to remember exactly where they have been and who they have been close in the days leading up to their positive test. If people forget or simply remember inaccurately who they have seen it could risk the virus spreading. 

3. Self-isolating will be voluntary 

When the scheme launches it will not come with the threat of penalties or fines for people who do not comply with the request to stay at home. However, Mr Johnson made clear that minister could later impose penalties if people do not play by the rules. 

4. It is unclear exactly who will be in charge of tackling localised outbreaks

Councils and public health officials will be tasked with cracking down on local spikes in infection but it was not immediately clear who will lead those efforts, how many staff members would be available to help or if local authorities will get extra funding and powers to act appropriately. 

5. Test results could take longer than 24 hours 

The aim of the scheme is to get all test results processed and returned within 24 hours but it is unlikely to hit that goal right at the start of the rollout. That means some people could face lengthy waits to find out if they have tested positive, potentially delaying the contact tracing process and allowing the virus to spread. 

People identified as having been in close contact will then be told to stay at home for 14 days even if they do not have symptoms to stop unknowingly spreading the virus. 

If those in isolation do then develop symptoms they will be able to book a test online or by calling 119. 

if they test positive they must continue to self-isolate for seven days or until symptoms have passed. If they test negative they must complete 14 days in isolation just in case the virus could not be detected yet. 

Members of their household will not have to stay at home unless the contacted person becomes symptomatic. Then all household members must self-isolate for 14 days. 

Everyone who has to isolate will be entitled to statutory sick pay or if they are self-employed they will get access to a Government grant. 

The scheme will have the capacity to trace the contacts of 10,000 people who test positive for coronavirus per day. That capacity could be scaled up if it is deemed necessary. 

Royal Society scientists suggested the contact tracing programme may only bring down infections by as little as five per cent. 

World-leading experts from the prestigious scientific academy warned the scheme was ‘not a silver bullet’ and will only have a ‘modest’ effect on the UK’s crisis.

The scientists said that testing times were still too slow and there is a good chance many Britons do not adhere to self-isolation rules. 

They modelled what effect contact tracing would have on Britain’s epidemic and found that, even if compliance is 80 per cent and the Government speeds up its testing, the number of new cases will only drop by up to 15 per cent.

The report, by the Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) group, has been handed to SAGE scientists ahead of the rollout of the contact tracing programme. 

Nobel Prize laureate Venki Ramakrishnan, chair of the DELVE committee, said the UK’s scheme should by no means ‘be considered as a silver bullet’. 

The latest Downing Street data showed there had been 412 daily deaths from coronavirus in the UK, taking the toll to more than 37,000

The latest Downing Street data showed there had been 412 daily deaths from coronavirus in the UK, taking the toll to more than 37,000

Some 117,013 coronavirus tests were carried out in the 24 hours to 9am taking the overall total to almost four million tests carried out

Some 117,013 coronavirus tests were carried out in the 24 hours to 9am taking the overall total to almost four million tests carried out 

Experts: UK’s contact tracing scheme may only cut infections by 5%

The Government’s contact tracing programme will only bring down infections by a mere 5 per cent, according to Royal Society scientists.

World-leading experts from the prestigious scientific academy warned the scheme was ‘not a silver bullet’ and will only have a ‘modest’ effect on the UK’s crisis.

The scientists said that testing times were still too slow and there was a good chance many Britons do not adhere to self-isolation rules. 

They modelled what effect contact tracing would have on Britain’ epidemic and found that, even if compliance is 80 per cent and the Government speeds up its testing, the number of new cases will only drop by up to 15 per cent.

The report, by the Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) group, has been handed to SAGE scientists ahead of the rollout of the contact tracing programme. 

In it, Royal Society academics urge ministers to focus their efforts on bringing down the average time it takes to produce a COVID-19 test result.

Currently, swabs can take up to five days to be carried out, posted to a laboratory and analysed.

If this can be slashed to three days, then the Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) programme could see infections fall by as much as 15 per cent, DELVE says.

Nobel Prize laureate Venki Ramakrishnan, chair of the DELVE committee, said the UK’s scheme should by no means ‘be considered as a silver bullet’.

 

Ms Harding said the success of the scheme will depend on people doing as they are told when it comes to self-isolation.

She told reporters: ‘The purpose of this is to enable us to move from all of us being in national lockdown to a model where there is individual isolation if you are ill with the disease or if you have been in close contact with someone who is ill with the disease and local action where we see individual cases starting to spike. 

‘So it is a really important moment where all of us in the country will need to play our part in enabling us to be able to move back to a more normal life.’ 

Despite the high stakes nature of the coronavirus outbreak and the damage a second wave would do, Ms Harding confirmed the Government does not plan to fine people for non-compliance – at least initially. 

She said: ‘The Secretary of State has the powers to bring in penalties but on day one that is not what we are doing.’ 

The fact that the system without the app is entirely reliant on human testimony has raised concerns, with people needing to remember who they have seen, where and when in order for it to work effectively. 

Ms Harding said there was nothing abnormal about launching without the app as she said physical contact tracing ‘is how contact tracing works for all infectious diseases’.  

She would not be drawn on when the app will be ready as she tried to down play its significance. 

‘The app will be up and running soon and I am sorry, I am not going to give you a date,’ she said. 

‘I am much more focused at the moment on getting the overall test and trace service up and running. I view the app the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself.’ 

Concerns have been expressed that the data revealed during the contact tracing process could be passed onto the police to crackdown on non-compliance with lockdown rules. 

For example, if someone has visited a friend’s house during lockdown but is then flagged as a contact for a positive test and they then have to reveal their rule breaking. 

But Ms Harding said all data shared with NHS Test and Trace will always be ‘entirely confidential’. 

The new contact tracing system does raise the prospect of some people facing more than one spell in isolation if they are flagged by more than one person who tests positive. 

Ms Harding said repeated periods of self-isolation would likely ‘trigger the investigation at a local level to say “what is happening there”‘. 

She said there will be local action plans in place for ‘test, tracing and containing’ with councils and public health officials tasked with playing ‘whack a mole’ to stop potential outbreaks if the data shows a concerning spike in positive tests in a specific area.  

‘The best way that we can contain it will be through local public health professionals and local authority leaders going in and understanding what is really happening,’ she said.

‘That is what you have seen around the world where you have seen a significant outbreak, they get successfully contained, where local communities understand what is happening and work together, whether it is in rapidly testing people who don’t have any symptoms to make sure that you have not got an asymptomatic group that are spreading the disease. 

‘Whether it is infection control, deep cleaning and whether it is closing temporarily one service or another in that local community to do all that testing and cleaning. That responsibility lies with our upper tier local authorities and they will be the people marshalling the local resources.’ 

Councils have welcomed  the prospect of taking a bigger role in the fight against coronavirus but have insisted they must be given the appropriate powers to be able to act. 

Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, Councillor Ian Hudspeth, said: ‘Covid-19 is best understood as a pattern of local outbreaks, rather than a national pandemic with a similar impact in every community, which is why councils as local leaders have a fundamental role to play in the test and trace service.

‘It is good government has recognised the importance of directors of public health within councils, who need to have the necessary powers and authority to lead the response locally and tackle outbreaks early and aggressively.’ 

How will the coronavirus test and trace system work, will I be fined if I refuse a test and will it help to lift the coronavirus lockdown? Your questions about the new system answered

Millions of Britons face the prospect of a fortnight in isolation even if they test positive for coronavirus under the Government’s new test and trace programme from this morning.

The much-delayed scheme was unveiled tonight by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who said it was the ‘civic duty’ of the public to adhere to the new rules.

It will come into effect from 9am today, starting with people who have already returned a positive test.

But just what are these new rules and how will then be enforced? Here we look at some of the most basic questions about the new programme which is designed to allow England – it is not yet rolling out in other nations of the UK – to return to normal.

How does it work?

Baroness Harding

Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock (right) and Baroness Harding (left) unveiled the new programme tonight

The NHS Test and Trace system for England will see anyone who develops symptoms told to self-isolate and get tested, with the close contacts of those who are found to be positive for the disease then told to quarantine for 14 days even if they test negative and are not sick.

The Government and NHS has hired an enormous army of 50,000 people who will attempt to make this possible.

Half, some 25,000, are contact tracers. Every time someone returns a positive coronavirus test they will contact them to grill them on their movements and their known associates. The idea is to build a picture of who they have come into contact with and therefore who might be at risk of a) becoming ill themselves and b) passing it on to yet more people. 

Another 25,000 are testers, who will go out into the community and test these known associates.

Either way, these known associates will be under orders to immediately quarantine, even if the tests they return are negative.

Baroness Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, said compliance with the new test and trace system is ‘vital’ to carefully lift the remaining lockdown measures.

She said: ‘Step three – NHS Test and Trace will help you establish who you’ve been in close contact with and so who you might have infected and will gather their contact details.

‘This could include members of your household, or someone you’ve been in two metres of for more than 15 minutes.’

Baroness Harding added: ‘NHS Test and Trace in turn will get in touch with those contacts.

‘So if you’ve been exposed to an infected person, they will be in contact with you. You will then be instructed by the NHS to self-isolate for 14 days, even if you don’t have symptoms or you feel perfectly well. You need to follow these instructions.

‘This individual and collective effort is vital if we’re to keep the rate of infection down and carefully lift the lockdown.’

Are there any pitfalls? 

Yes. This programme has been put together as quickly as possible, despite some delays.

Experts immediately said the complexity of the programme meant there could be ‘several points of failure’ while the Government’s political opponents said ministers should never have largely ditched contact tracing in the first place. 

Without the app the tracking down of contacts will be based on the say so of people who have tested positive. That means people will need to remember exactly where they have been and who they have been close in the days leading up to their positive test. If people forget or simply remember inaccurately who they have seen it could risk the virus spreading.

Baroness Harding told the Downing Street briefing yesterday: ‘We have 25,000 contact tracers ready to start work tomorrow – that is easily enough to trace down the contacts today when the vast majority of us are in lockdown.’

She said data from the Isle of Wight suggests people have been within two metres of fewer than five others at the moment.

What is this app people are talking about? 

The system is being launched without its NHS contact tracing app centrepiece prompting concerns that without the new technology the Government could struggle to tackle the spread of the disease.

Experts believe the app will be crucial to the success of the programme because it can identify contacts much quicker than human contact tracers. The smartphone app uses bluetooth to register other phones it has been near for a prolonged period of time. A date has not been set for the nationwide roll out of the app but without it contact tracing will not be as swift as it would be with it. 

Mr Hancock said it is ‘not technical problems’ preventing the test and trace app from being rolled out nationwide.

Mr Hancock said: ‘No, it is not technical problems, it is that one of the things we learnt about in the Isle of Wight is that rolling out the system where people are asked to isolate, even if they have no symptoms, starts better when it comes in human form from the contact tracers.’

He added that ‘the app is working in the Isle of Wight’, and said that when the Government has ‘successfully embedded’ the new NHS Test and Trace system, ‘then that is the time to bring the app to bear’.

Mr Hancock continued: ‘Because the app is a compliment to this system, even without it this system would be successful, but it is a compliment because there are some contacts that you don’t know that you might have made.’

He added: ‘So the app is a compliment, it is best brought forward once this system is embedded and that is what we plan to do – it is not because of any technical glitches.’

What if people refuse to isolate? Will I be fined and if so, how much?

When the scheme launches it will not come with the threat of penalties or fines for people who do not comply with the request to stay at home. However, Mr Johnson made clear that minister could later impose penalties if people do not play by the rules.

At tonight’s press conference Mr Hancock said the Government is ‘confident’ that when told to self-isolate, people will, adding: ‘Now of course we could also mandate that, but in the first instance we’re not going to.

‘This will be voluntary at first because we trust everyone to do the right thing.

‘But, we can quickly make it mandatory if that is what it takes.

‘Because, if we don’t collectively make this work, then the only way forward is to keep the lockdown.’  

What checks are in place to stop it being open to abuse, or pretending to have the disease as a joke? 

The emphasis of the entire scheme is on testing people. So people claiming to have the disease will be tested. There will be very little wriggle room. Although if those who test positive fail or refuse to reveal who they have been in contact with, without the app there is very little the contact tracers can do to tell if people are telling the truth.

Who is in charge of the operation where I am? 

Councils and public health officials will be tasked with cracking down on local spikes in infection but it was not immediately clear who will lead those efforts, how many staff members would be available to help or if local authorities will get extra funding and powers to act appropriately. 

If I have to take a test, how long will it be before I know if I have the coronavirus?

The aim of the scheme is to get all test results processed and returned within 24 hours but it is unlikely to hit that goal right at the start of the rollout. That means some people could face lengthy waits to find out if they have tested positive, potentially delaying the contact tracing process and allowing the virus to spread. 

Baroness Harding said of the test timings so far: ‘Yesterday, the turnaround time of our tests – we returned 84 per cent of all tests in our drive-in centres within 24 hours.

‘And 95 per cent of all tests within 48 hours. I still don’t think that’s good enough. It’s got to get better and better.’

Why the big change at all, why not simply keep going the way we are?    

Because the current lockdown, although it has helped dramatically reduce the death rate from coronavirus, is destroying the economy. 

Millions of workers are surviving on furlough cash from the Government and businesses have received hundreds of billions of pounds in emergency loans from Chancellor Rishi Sunak. But it cannot go on forever.

This is all aprt of Boris Johnson’s plan to bring the UK out of the lockdown safely.

 Mr Hancock told the daily press briefing: ‘The big question that we’re all working to answer is this: until an effective treatment or vaccine comes through how can we get back to doing more of the things that make life worth living without risking safety or putting lives at risk?

‘NHS Test and Trace is a big part – not the only part – but a big part of the answer to that question.’

Mr Hancock said that by tracking infected people and isolating their contacts, and by continuing social distancing, the national lockdown could be replaced with individual isolation.

Could I find myself in lockdown again even if I am not tested under the new programme?

Yes. ‘Local lockdowns’ could be imposed on whole towns if there are regional flare-ups of coronavirus cases.

Mr Hancock said last night that the ability to tighten restrictions in individual regions will be part of the NHS test, track and trace system.

This could lead to local schools, businesses or workplaces being closed in areas with high prevalence of infection, according to the government’s road map on easing lockdown restrictions.

Boris Johnson’s crunch appearance in front of the Liaison Committee: PM dismisses calls for official inquiry into Dominic Cummings, says he wants to reduce 2m social distancing rule and admits ‘not everybody’ will return to school from day one

By David Wilcock, Whitehall Correspondent for MailOnline 

The Prime Minister faced a long-awaited grilling by senior MPs on the House of Commons Liaison Committee. 

The 90 minute hearing focused on coronavirus. Here are the key points from Mr Johnson’s responses. 

Dominic Cummings row 

The Prime Minister flatly dismissed the calls for an official inquiry into Dominic Cummings as he was grilled by senior MPs, saying the outcry was just a ‘political ding dong’.

The row over Mr Cummings’ 260-mile trip to Durham during lockdown in March and the PM’s refusal to sack him is still threatening to tear the Tories to pieces.

The party’s poll lead has been slashed by nine points in a week – thought to be the biggest drop in a decade.

The PM said he ‘totally understood public indignation’ about the situation, but insisted some of the allegations about his chief aide were ‘not correct’ and urged people to ‘move on’.

Pushed on whether the Cabinet Secretary should carry out a formal investigation, Mr Johnson said there had been plenty of ‘autobiography’ from Mr Cummings and it would not be a ‘good use of official time’ as everyone was working ‘flat out’ on the coronavirus response.

The row over Mr Cummings' 260-mile trip to Durham during lockdown in March and the PM's refusal to sack him is still threatening to tear the Tories to pieces

The row over Mr Cummings’ 260-mile trip to Durham during lockdown in March and the PM’s refusal to sack him is still threatening to tear the Tories to pieces

Easing social distancing

Mr Johnson revealed he has asked top Government scientists to review the two-metre social distancing rule in the ‘hope’ that it can be reduced to help pubs and shops reopen.

The UK has one of the strictest contact gap rules in the world to counter coronavirus transmission, double the one metre gap recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Schools and shop in the UK are due to open in the next few weeks with strict measures already being planned to keep children and shoppers two metres from each other as much as possible in both settings. 

Mr Johnson was asked about the two metre rule by Science Committee chairman Greg Clark.  

The PM replied that the Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advice was that there was a ‘considerable reduction’ in risk at that distance, compared to a smaller gap. 

‘My own hope is that as we make progress in getting the virus down … we will be able to reduce that distance which I think will be particularly valuable on (public) transport and in the hospitality sector,’ he added.

The Government’s women problem 

Mr Johnson said he would have liked to have had more female representation at the daily Downing Street press conferences.

Priti Patel is the only woman minister to have led one of the set pieces since they started in March. 

In response to questions from Tory MP Caroline Nokes, chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Committee, the PM said: ‘It’s certainly true that I would have liked to have had more female representation at the press conferences so far.’

Mr Johnson also acknowledged that female workers have been ‘harder hit’ by the pandemic, because ‘very often they will have jobs, particularly lower paid jobs, that make it more difficult for them to work from home’.

The Prime Minister said having women in the room when decisions are made has a ‘huge difference’ to the nature of the decisions taken.

Asked how many women is ‘enough’ representation, Mr Johnson appeared to laugh – before the committee chairman Bernard Jenkin said: ‘It’s not a joking matter though, is it?’

The PM said: ‘It’s not, and all I say, Caroline (Nokes), is that it’s incredibly important to us.’

Back to school 

Mr Johnson said he expects ‘not everybody will go back’ on day one of the phased reopening of schools next week, but insisted it is ‘safe provided everybody remembers the guidelines we’ve set out’, including social distancing and hand washing.

On whether the plan is for the remaining primary school pupils to return a month before the summer holidays, Mr Johnson said: ‘We will keep that under review, we’d like to do it if we can, it depends on our national success in keeping the disease under control.’

Pressed on introducing a catch-up premium and summer schools to help disadvantaged pupils, the PM told the Liaison Committee: ‘I want to support any measures we can to level up.’

He added: ‘There’s no doubt a huge social injustice is taking place at the moment because some kids are going to have better access to tutoring and schooling at home, and other kids aren’t going to get nearly as much, and that’s not fair.

‘That’s one of the reasons we need to get schools back.’

He said the catch-up fund was a ‘good idea’, before highlighting support in place, adding: ‘There’s a lot more that needs to be done.’

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