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UK Track and Trace to start tomorrow

27 May 2020

By Tim Le Couilliard, Newgate Public Affairs

Today the Commons Liaison Committee grilled the Prime Minister on all things to do with coronavirus. It marked the first appearance of Boris Johnson in front of the ‘super committee’, and served as the precursor for the announcement of track and trace made by Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily briefing. 

Hancock, standing behind a new slogan: “NHS Test and Trace”, provided the detail on the new strategy – described as “an incredibly important milestone”. Hancock stated that the new programme would allow “for local action”, and echoed the previously suggested “whack-a-mole” strategy of the Prime Minister. It will replace the national lockdown in England, and the strategy will allow for targeted, local lockdowns in affected regions. Hancock also announced that there has also been a further roll-out of testing, utilising the 161,000 daily test capacity, with all those who show symptoms now being able to be tested (previously it has not been offered to those younger than five). 

Under the new strategy “NHS Test and Trace”, anyone who has been in contact with symptomatic people will be asked to self-isolate, even if they do not show symptoms themselves. 

Baroness Dido Harding, appointed by the government to lead the new programme, outlined the three steps of the strategy:

1: If you have symptoms, you must isolate;

2: Then take a test and if you test positive, you'll be contacted by the NHS within 24 hours;

3: The service will then help establish who you've been in contact with, and could have infected.

Before Hancock took to the podium, the Liaison Committee had, as expected, pressed the Prime Minister on his support for his closest adviser Dominic Cummings. Johnson, whilst “sorry for the hurt, pain and anxiety that people are going through” stated that on this matter he had “commented on it and people know my views” and that he “did not wish to add to the argument over the Cummings’ affair”,  whilst stating that the reports of Cummings’ actions in the papers were not all true.  Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister described the questioning as party political, and was “keen to move on and focus on what we are doing” on Coronavirus and “focus on the needs of the nation” rather than “political ding-dong”. 

Accused by Yvette Cooper of putting his “political concerns ahead of clear public health messages to parents with coronavirus”, the Prime Minister was pressed on whether Cummings’ actions would impact on future public obedience of the lockdown and the potential for a tightening of the lock down. In response, Johnson stated that “I don’t believe the public will not respond to future guidance.” Sanctions, including financial penalties,  will be considered for those who break the stay at home advice post-tests. But the government and the country is relying on people’s public willingness and common-sense to defeat the disease.

The Chair, moving on to science and health, allowed questions on the scientific advice that the PM had received. He was pushed by Greg Clark on the 2-meter distancing policy that the UK is operating under - as the WHO recommends 1 meter.  In response, Johnson stated that the advice from SAGE remains unchanged and the advice remains at 2 meters – although SAGE has been asked to review the guidance before the 15 June opening of shops 

Jeremy Hunt the former Health Secretary, describing the track and trace strategy as a “possible game-changer”, noted that it is only possible with significantly ramped up testing and testing within 24 hours (with a current turnaround of 48 hours). The Prime Minister committed to implementing a target of 24 hours turnaround time for tests, but would not give a deadline for when the target would be introduced but that it would be “as soon as possible”. 

On schools, the Prime Minister was asked to confirm the safety of pupils, teachers and staff, who are set to gradually return on 1st June. Johnson accepted that not everyone will return on day one but that schools are safe, provided everybody remembers the government guidance set out and measures are being continually reviewed. Johnson was asked about a “catchup premium” for those who are left behind – to which he stated that he was keen to look at any methods to help the country “level up”. Johnson also will look at apprenticeships, and anything else that will help people. He stopped short of promising an apprenticeships guarantee, but stated that he would look at the proposals as suggested by Robert Halfon.  With Cambridge University cancelled in person lecture until next summer, the Prime Minister was asked about this approach. Whilst he expressed a preference for physical lectures, it appears that decisions on face-to-face teaching, and on the returning of tuition fees, will be left up to universities.  

Asked by Stephen Timms about the potential for “pretty radical measures for employment after the crisis”, Johnson said that “this might be the moment that we tackle the productivity gap in the county and we could use this crisis to address these issue”. The Chancellor is said to be looking at these closely and will look to announce more in June and July. 

Johnson did say that  it is extremely likely that there will be an employment support programme, similar to that that followed the 2010 crash. Noting the speed the furlough scheme was set up, Johnson said this would also be set up quickly: The focus must be on getting the economy moving again – sticking to his mantra of “fantastic infrastructure, better education, better skills and technology, and we are going to stick ruthlessly to that - We are doubling down on that and intensifying.” 

The final group of questions focused on the economy, noting the suggestion that there would be significant spending in order to get the economy moving again. Whilst there is likely be low borrowing rates in the aftermath of the pandemic, Mel Stride pressed the Prime Minister on tax rates. The Prime Minister stated that we would have to wait “until Rishi brings forward his various proposals”, but taxes will be kept as low as feasibly possible to maintain our public services. He would not be drawn into committing or anticipating what would be upcoming in the economic package and stated that, for now, the most important thing for the economy is getting coronavirus down.  Asked about BA furloughing staff and then announcing a redundancy scheme, he said he wouldn’t talk about individual companies but that: “People should not be using furlough to cynically keep people on their books and then get rid of them.”

Separately, he did say that the government would meet all of their manifesto commitments, unless the he specifically stated so otherwise.