The government’s coronavirus test and trace programme has launched but there were reports of crashes amid suggestions it may not be fully ready.
NHS workers in the scheme reported being unable to log into the new website, with volunteers saying they received a message on the programme saying a “critical incident” has been reported with the system.
It comes as Baroness Dido Harding, who has been appointed to lead the scheme, told MPs on a conference call the system will not be fully operational until the end of June.
Dido Harding just told me on an MPs’ conference call that Test, Trace & Isolate won’t be fully operational at local level till the end of June. Not sure where that leaves Johnson’s promise of a fully operational “world beating” system by Monday.#Covid19UK
— Ben Bradshaw (@BenPBradshaw) May 28, 2020
Following the call, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw tweeted he was “not sure where that leaves Johnson’s promise of a fully operational ‘world beating’ system by Monday”.
Anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has been infected with COVID-19 will be asked to isolate for 14 days even if they have no symptoms.
Boris Johnson has acknowledged that being told to self-isolate was a “huge imposition” but people should be aware of why the programme is needed.
And he warned that if the initial voluntary system was not respected, fines could be introduced for people who fail to comply.
However, doubt was cast on whether the test and trace system would actually be fully ready on time, with one person telling Sky News that the system constantly crashed because of the volume of users.
Sky’s political correspondent Rob Powell said a Department of Health source said that “some contact tracers had some issues logging in”.
“They say this is the staff side of things, whereas the public side where you can go online and book a test if you are symptomatic is still running smoothly,” he said.
He added officials have acknowledged there will be “teething problems and they will take time to iron out”.
The website has not crashed. The public can access it here: https://t.co/RECSjsv5cU
As with all large scale operations, some staff initially encountered issues logging on to their systems. These issues are rapidly being resolved.
— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) May 28, 2020
NHS Providers boss Chris Hopson said “some elements” of test and trace are now in place but local plans are not, and the government should “manage expectations” and be honest this will take time to build up and not suggest it is all ready to go now.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Bradshaw said Baroness Harding confirmed the programme “would not be ready and would not be expected to be ready until the end of June”, adding: “It doesn’t really fit with what the prime minister told the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions last week.”
One contact tracer told Sky News that volunteers were told on Wednesday that they would be starting on 1 June, and “knew nothing about the announcement yesterday that it was going to be today”.
“It really is as bad as I thought it was in terms of organisation – this is particularly bad,” they said.
The contact tracer, who preferred to remain anonymous, added that there is “no quality or vetting process” in terms of who the government is hiring.
“There’s no checks and balances in terms of what people they are hiring. It’s just a matter of getting the number of people through the door.”
Explaining the scheme, the prime minister told MPs on the liaison committee on Wednesday: “We will be asking people to stay at home.
“If they don’t follow that advice, what we will be saying is we will consider what sanctions may be necessary.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock warned people could be forced to self-isolate under the new coronavirus test and trace system if they do not follow the rules voluntarily.
He said: “We have considered making this mandatory and there are some other countries in which it’s mandatory.
“But in the first instance, we have great faith the public will follow the instructions from the NHS”.
Anyone who tests positive will be asked for details of people they have been in close contact with and places they have visited over the last seven days – either by a contact tracer or by a text or email.
Once they have given those details, either to the contact tracer or online via a website, those contacts will then be alerted by phone, text or email.
Depending on their level of risk, those contacts will be instructed to isolate for up to 14 days – anyone with symptoms should also isolate for seven days while they wait for a test result.
In order to prepare for the launch, the government has hired 25,000 contact tracers to get in touch with people who have the virus. Officials said all of them would be ready to report for duty on Thursday.
Yet the scheme will not include the contact tracing app currently being tested on the Isle of Wight, which means it will not be able to identify people unknown to someone who tests positive.
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A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The system has not crashed. Anyone in the country can log on and book a test if they have symptoms and we have tracers logged on to do their vital work to help stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives.
“As with all large scale operations of this kind, some staff did initially encounter issues logging on to their systems and these are rapidly being resolved.”
They added: “Test and trace begins today, not June, and local councils already have plans in place to respond to COVID-19.
“To support the roll-out of test and trace, all councils have been asked to extend these existing plans into dedicated Local Outbreak Plans by the end of June. Last week we gave all councils £300 million new dedicated funding to support this.”
Downing Street has also confirmed the number of people tested for COVID-19 has not been released for several days due to an “issue” meaning they were unable to get the data from one commercial partner.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said he expects test reporting to continue again as usual next week.
Next week from Monday to Thursday, Dermot Murnaghan will be hosting After the Pandemic: Our New World – a series of special live programmes about what our world will be like once the pandemic is over.
We’ll be joined by some of the biggest names from the worlds of culture, politics, economics, science and technology. And you can take part too. If you’d like to be in our virtual audience – from your own home – and put questions to the experts, email firstname.lastname@example.org