Test and trace system to launch on Thursday - how it works, who it applies to and what it means for lockdown restrictions

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The NHS Test and Trace system will officially launch across England on Thursday as the Government looks to move from lockdown to more targeted measures of controlling coronavirus.

Under the system people with coronavirus will have their contacts traced, with the aim to cut off routes of transmission for the virus and control local flare-ups.

Speaking at the Downing Street daily briefing Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged the public to carry out their “civic duty” and make the new test and trace system work – saying the only other option is continuing the lockdown.

How will the NHS Test and Trace system work?

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaking at the Downing Street briefing. Photo by PA.Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaking at the Downing Street briefing. Photo by PA.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaking at the Downing Street briefing. Photo by PA.

NHS Test and Trace will officially launch across England on Thursday with the help of 25,000 contact tracers, while an accompanying app is still delayed by several weeks.

Under the plans, anyone with coronavirus symptoms will immediately self-isolate and book a test, preferably at a testing centre or, if necessary, for delivery to their home. Their household should start a 14-day isolation period too.

If the test proves negative, everyone comes out of isolation.

But if the test is positive, NHS contact tracers or local public health teams will call them, email or send a text asking them to share details of the people they have been in close contact with and places they have visited.

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The team then emails or texts those close contacts, telling them they must stay home for 14 days even if they have no symptoms, to avoid unknowingly spreading the virus.

Their household members do not need to isolate at this point.

If the contact themselves then falls ill, they book themselves a test.

If this is positive, they stay home for seven days or until their symptoms have passed, and their household stays home for 14 days.

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If it is negative, the contact must still complete their initial 14-day isolation period.

Who does the system apply to?

Under the plans, anyone with coronavirus symptoms will be required to immediately self-isolate and book a test.

If it is positive, the infected person and their close contacts, will be informed that they must stay home for 14 days even if they have no symptoms.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “If you get symptoms, isolate immediately and get a test.

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“If you are contacted by NHS test and trace instructing you to isolate, you must.

“It is your civic duty, so you avoid unknowingly spreading the virus and you help to break the chain of transmission.”

Who would be considered a close contact?

A close contact is defined as anybody who has been in close contact with an infected person in the two days before symptoms appear and up to seven days afterwards.

This includes people in the same household, those who have been within one metre, or who have been within two metres for 15 minutes or more.

When does it start and is it compulsory?

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The system will come into effect from 9am on Thursday, May 28.

The first people to be contacted will be the people who received a positive result on Wednesday, May 27.

It will be voluntary at first, but the Health Secretary has warned that it could become mandatory if people do not comply.

Speaking at the briefing Mr Hancock said: “This will be voluntary at first because we trust everyone to do the right thing.

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“But, we can quickly make it mandatory if that is what it takes.

“Because, if we don’t collectively make this work, then the only way forward is to keep the lockdown.”

What does it mean for lockdown?Mr Hancock said that by tracking infected people and isolating their contacts, and by continuing social distancing, the national lockdown could be replaced with individual isolation.

He said: “The virus exists only to reproduce – that’s its sole biological purpose, to make as many copies of itself as possible.

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“If we can thwart that purpose, we can control the virus and ultimately defeat it.

“We must all follow the NHS test and trace instructions as this is how we control the virus, protect the NHS and save lives.”

Baroness Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, said the scheme was central to easing the lockdown further.

She said: “NHS test and trace is designed to enable the vast majority of us to be able to get on with our lives in a much more normal way, but it requires all of us to do our civic duty.

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“We will be trading national lockdown for individual isolation if we have symptoms.

“Instead of 60 million people being in national lockdown, a much smaller number of us will be told we need to stay at home, either for seven days if we are ill or 14 days if we have been in close contact.”

As part of NHS Test and Trace, testing facilities may be rapidly deployed to particular locations if there is an outbreak.

What support will there be for those self-isolating?

The Government has said that those self-isolating will be eligible for statutory sick pay, while people who are self-employed will be able to access cash grants.

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