A new £300m funding package has been made available to local authorities to help contain coronavirus outbreaks, including in schools.
It comes as the Department for Education is set to confirm tomorrow if schools can begin a phased reopening on June 1, with scientists saying a test and trace initiative is key for those plans.
Today, the government has announced a new NHS Test and Track service in England, where from tomorrow anyone with symptoms will be tested and their close contacts will be traced.
Prime minister Boris Johnson, appearing at the liaison committee today, said while the scheme will be “useful”, he promised it will get “steadily better” with the ambition for a “world class test and trace system”.
Under the plans, a national “Joint Biosecurity Centre” will work with local authorities and public health teams to identify and respond to localised outbreaks. That includes deploying testing facilities to particular locations if required.
Plans will focus on controlling outbreaks in places including schools, care homes, workplaces and housing complexes, “ensuring testing capacity is deployed effectively and helping the most vulnerable in self-isolation access essential services in their area”.
A new Local Government Advisory Board has also been established to support this work.
The government has also expanded testing availability to include children aged under 5 to “help support the phased opening of schools and childcare settings in England” from June 1.
Anyone with a new, continuous cough, a high temperature or a change in their sense of smell or taste is asked to immediately report these symptoms and book a test at nhs.uk/coronavirus or call 119.
If a person tests positive, they will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and will need to share information about their recent interactions including household members, those they’ve had direct contact with or within two metres for more than 15 minutes.
People identified as having been in close contact with someone who has a positive test must stay at home for 14 days, even if they do not have symptoms, to “stop unknowingly spreading the virus”. Johnson said today this will be advisory only, but ministers would look at fines should people not follow the guidance to self-isolate.
The NHS Covid-19 application, which has been rolled out on the Isle of Wight, is due to be launched in “the coming weeks”. The government says this will “significantly extend the speed and reach of contact tracing, by helping to identify those who you may not know, such as someone sitting next to you on public transport”.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “This new system will help us keep this virus under control while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally.”
But the government has come under fire for taking so long to launch a track and trace system.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said the lack of such a system had left a “huge hole in our defences”.