Boris Johnson promised MPs that a “world-beating” virus tracing system would be in place by 1 June but chaos over the rollout of an NHS smartphone app to track cases has thrown the pledge into doubt.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents hospital bosses, warned that staff and patients would be put at risk if the system is not in place ahead of any further easing of the lockdown.
And he questioned whether the system could be ready for 1 June, saying there was “concern at a local level” about how the plans could be rolled out.
The warning came as James Brokenshire, the home office minister, conceded that the NHS X app would not be ready in time for the 1 June, saying it would be available in “the coming weeks”.
The test, track and trace system is a key part of the government’s strategy for easing the lockdown, where public health officials monitor the spread of the virus by tracking down people who has been in contact with Covid-19 patients.
In a letter to the health secretary, Mr Dickson said: “We are 10 weeks into the pandemic and still we await a clear and supported test, track and trace strategy.
“The relaxation of restrictions based on scientific advice is the right strategy but it must be accompanied by an effective test, track and trace strategy which enables us to monitor local spread of the disease.
“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
“This is about saving lives and protecting the NHS: if we do not set up the right system, involving local agencies, we will put patients and NHS staff at risk.”
Mr Dickson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the tracing system was being done “very late in the day” and said the government needs “to get on with this”.
“I’m not saying it is impossible to do it, but I think there is concern among those at local level because we’ve seen – not occasionally, we’ve seen often – where national stuff is done with the best of intentions, but unless the local context is understood it doesn’t really work as well as it should,” he said.
The NHS smartphone app for tracking people who have been in contact with Covid-19 patients will not be ready for 1 June, when the next stage of the government’s relaxation of lockdown is due to begin.
Mr Brokenshire insisted it was “just one part of the test and trace system”, which also uses traditional contact tracing by an army of public health officials.
Asked when the app would be ready, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It will be available in the coming weeks. I am sorry I can’t be more specific this morning… but I can assure you that this is being worked with utmost urgency.
“As I say it is one part of the tracing system. The rest is this tried and tested method used by PHE (Public Health England) for many other diseases.”
The government has faced criticism over its decision to abandon widespread contact tracing in mid-March as the number of cases soared in the UK.
But Mr Brokenshire defended the move, telling LBC: “I think there are arguments actually to say that we needed to deploy the resource in the way that we did.
“But there will be plenty of time for us to continue this conversation when we’re through the current pressures and the current issues and everybody will be able to reflect on what was and was not done.”