Boris Johnson insisted that test and trace systems were in place to respond to fresh coronavirus outbreaks as England prepares for the widest easing of lockdown measures yet.
The Prime Minister insisted that a “cluster-busting operation” would quickly tackle localised outbreaks and defended the reach of the NHS Test and Trace system, even though the promised app now appears a distant prospect.
Mr Johnson’s comments followed calls from health leaders for an urgent review to ensure Britain is properly prepared for the “real risk” of a second wave of coronavirus.
The appeal is backed by the presidents of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Surgeons, GPs and Nursing – as well as the chairman of the British Medical Association.
Mr Johnson was challenged by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer about the gap between the number of estimated coronavirus cases and those entering the test and trace system.
Sir Keir also rejected Mr Johnson’s claim that no country had yet developed a contact tracing app, pointing out that Germany’s had been downloaded 12 million times.
The prospect of much wider social contact as a result of the July 4 easing of restrictions has underlined the need for an effective test and trace operation.
Sir Keir highlighted the estimated 33,000 people who are thought to have coronavirus in England, comparing the figure to the 10,000 within the test and trace system.
“The Prime Minister risks making the mistakes he made at the beginning of the pandemic, brushing aside challenge, dashing forward, not estimating properly the risks,” the Labour leader said.
“If two-thirds of those with Covid-19 are not being contacted that is a big problem, because if we don’t get track, trace and isolate properly running we can’t open the economy, we can’t prevent infection spreading.”
The Prime Minister told him: “The 33,000 cases in the country is, of course, an estimate. What NHS Test and Trace is doing is contacting the vast majority of those who test positive and their own contacts and getting them to self-isolate, and it is a formidable achievement.”
He dismissed concerns raised by Sir Keir that councils did not know whether they had the powers to respond to outbreaks with local lockdowns.
Mr Johnson said there was an “effective cluster-busting operation” to tackle outbreaks.
In response to questions about the promised contact tracing app, Mr Johnson said it was the “icing on the cake” rather than the main part of the system.
He challenged Sir Keir to name a single country in the world that has a functional contact tracing app “because there isn’t one”.
The Labour leader shot back: “Germany – 12 million downloads. I checked that overnight.”
Downing Street acknowledged that other countries had produced apps, but said they did not “fully and reliably” record contacts in a way that would allow officials to advise people whether to self-isolate or not.
A range of businesses including pubs, restaurants and hotels can reopen in England from July 4 and two households will be able to meet indoors.
Social distancing rules will be eased, with a “one-metre plus” system combining physical distancing with other mitigation measures allowed in areas where keeping a two-metre distance is impossible.
In an open letter to the leaders of all the UK political parties published in the British Medical Journal, health leaders call for a “rapid and forward-looking assessment” of the state of national preparedness in the event of a renewed flare-up.
“While the future shape of the pandemic in the UK is hard to predict, the available evidence indicates that local flare-ups are increasingly likely and a second wave a real risk,” they said.
“Many elements of the infrastructure needed to contain the virus are beginning to be put in place, but substantial challenges remain.
“The job now is not only to deal urgently with the wide-ranging impacts of the first phase of the pandemic, but to ensure that the country is adequately prepared to contain a second phase.”
Ministers have already said that the temporary Nightingale Hospitals set up in case the NHS was overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases will remain on standby over the coming months.
In other developments:
– The Scottish Government intends to allow outdoor hospitality such as beer gardens to reopen on Monday July 6, non-essential shops within indoor shopping centres to reopen from July 13, and households will be able to meet indoors with people from up to two other households from July 15.
– Labour is calling for NHS staff to undergo weekly testing for coronavirus in order to ensure waiting list backlogs can be safely cleared, a demand echoed by Jeremy Hunt in a column in The Daily Telegraph.
– Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said a key consideration in agreeing travel corridors with other countries is whether they had “something equivalent to our NHS Test and Trace system”.