LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s system for tracing those with the novel coronavirus was under fire on Thursday as it grappled with the development of a tracking app and health workers warned the government that unless there was clarity it could suffer a second deadly wave.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday a “world-beating” program to trace and test those suspected of having been in contact with people who have tested positive for COVID-19 would be in place by June 1.
Britain is currently testing the app – based on Bluetooth – on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England where the government says more than half the residents had downloaded it.
James Brokenshire, the junior interior minister in charge of security, said there were technical issues with the app but that traditional measures could be rolled out first.
“The track and trace system is going to be ready,” Brokenshire told Sky News.
“We obviously want to see that the app is put in place well and effectively, learning from the experience on the Isle of Wight and dealing with all of the feedback that we’re receiving on some of the technical issues, to ensure that the app is as strong as we can make it.”
When asked if the system could work without the app, he said: “Yes.”
Britain abandoned track and trace in the middle of March as the number of cases soared. But an effective system is now seen as crucial to preventing a deadly second wave of the outbreak – and thus getting the economy working again after the lockdown.
RISK OF SECOND INFECTION WAVE
The government has recruited 21,000 trackers in England to manually trace the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 using telephone and email.
The availability of tests – another core requirement for an effective programme – has also been extended.
Technology is the third plank of the system. An app could help identify anonymous contacts, such as encounters on public transport.
But Britain’s progress has been criticised: opposition lawmakers said an earlier promise of a nationwide roll-out of a National Health Service (NHS)-developed smartphone app had slipped from the middle of this month.
Rival technology developed by Apple and Google was launched in several other countries on Wednesday. The companies said they were in talks with Britain about the system.
The NHS Confederation, a group which represents the health service’s organisations, said the United Kingdom was at risk of a second jump in cases without clarity on government strategy.
“The relaxation of restrictions based on scientific advice is the right approach but it must be accompanied by an effective test, track and trace strategy which enables us to monitor local spread of the disease,” the confederation said.
“To achieve this we must have national, local and cross-agency involvement. Without this, we do face the risk of a second wave of infections.”