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A new system of testing everyone suspected of having Covid-19 and tracing their close contacts will be launched in England this week.
The government said the NHS Test and Trace service formed a “central part” of its “coronavirus recovery strategy” and aimed to help reduce further spread of the virus.
“This new system will help us keep this virus under control”
From Thursday, anyone with Covid-19 symptoms will be tested and if they test positive, they will be told to self-isolate for at least seven days and asked to provide information about their recent interactions.
Those identified as having been within two metres of an infected person for more than 15 minutes will be contacted and advised to stay at home for 14 days to avoid the risk of spreading the virus further.
If they develop symptoms themselves, they will get tested and if they also test positive, they will have to self-isolate for seven days from that moment or longer if they still have symptoms.
If they test negative, they must still complete the 14-day isolation period.
Members of their household will not have to stay at home unless the person identified becomes symptomatic.
The programme will also offer valuable intelligence about Covid-19 and the way it behaves to inform plans intended to eradicate it.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said the new strategy would allow the government to ease the national lockdown in favour of more targeted, localised measures.
“As we move to the next stage of our fight against coronavirus, we will be able to replace national lockdowns with individual isolation and, if necessary, local action where there are outbreaks,” he said.
“NHS Test and Trace will be vital to stopping the spread of the virus. It is how we will be able to protect our friends and family from infection, and protect our NHS.
“This new system will help us keep this virus under control while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally.”
The NHS Test and Trace service, including 25,000 dedicated contact tracing staff working with Public Health England, will have the capacity to trace the contacts of 10,000 people who test positive for Covid-19 per day, with the option to scale up if needed.
A new NHS app to support the programme is also due to be launched in the coming weeks following a successful trial in the Isle of Wight.
The app will help extend the reach of contact tracing by identifying those who an infected person may not know they had been in contact with such as when on public transport.
“To control the virus, we still need to continue with social distancing and good hygiene”
“The app will also give powerful insights into the spread of the virus and how to contain it,” according to the Department of Health and Social Care.
Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, said the service had been set up at rapid pace and added that work was underway to “tailor support at a local level”.
“Together we can help contain the virus, stop it spreading further and ultimately save lives,” she added.
New funding of £300m has been made available to local authorities to work with NHS Test and Trace to develop local outbreak control plans.
These plans will focus on identifying and containing potential outbreaks in places such as workplaces, housing complexes, care homes and schools, and ensuring vulnerable people are protected.
Professor John Newton, national coordinator of NHS Test and Trace, said: “At this critical point in the nation’s response to coronavirus we are launching a service that will enable us to emerge more safely from lockdown.
“To control the virus, we still need to continue with social distancing and good hygiene, but we also now have a comprehensive test and trace service to stop new cases spreading.
“This approach will allow us to gradually return to more normal personal, social and economic lives while recognising that we have to stay alert and respond rapidly to any advice from the new service.”
While the test and trace service applies only to England, the government said it was working with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure approaches were coordinated across the UK.