People contacted as part of the new NHS Test and Trace system must stay at home, Matt Hancock has said, while continuing to defend Dominic Cummings for “acting within the guidelines”.
As the new scheme rolls out across England, the Health Secretary said “the instructions are absolutely clear” and that, if told to do so by a tracer, it is very important that individuals self-isolate for 14 days.
His comments came amid mounting Tory anger over alleged lockdown breaches by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, whose actions the Health Secretary failed to say were the right thing to do.
Mr Hancock said he believes “the vast majority” will self-isolate voluntarily under the new system and that people will not receive penalties for failing to abide by the guidelines “in the first instance”, but he left open the possibility of making it mandatory for people to stay at home in the future.
NHS Test and Trace – seen as key to easing the restrictions – will be rolled out across England on Thursday with the help of 25,000 contact tracers, while an accompanying app is still delayed by several weeks.
Under the new system, people who come into close contact with a coronavirus sufferer will be told to self-isolate for 14 days under the new plans.
Meanwhile, a test and trace system is also launching in Scotland, where an easing of the lockdown is expected later.
Asked why people should follow the new self-isolation rules, when even Tory MPs believe Mr Johnson’s most senior aide breached them, Mr Hancock said that it is in “the whole community’s interest”.
“I think that the vast majority of people will understand that it is in everybody’s interest that those who are in higher risk follow the requests from the NHS, these instructions, and it is very important that they do.
“And, frankly, this is about how, as a country, we get out of this lockdown in the safest possible way, short of having a vaccine or an effective treatment, which obviously we’re working on but we don’t yet have,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The launch of the system comes amid a growing revolt within the Conservative Party over Mr Cummings’ controversial trip to Durham – with dozens of backbench Tories criticising his actions, and at least 38 calling for him to quit or be sacked.
But Mr Hancock remained adamant that the Downing Street aide acted in line with the rules when asked if his actions were morally right.
“I’ve said that I think that he was acting within the guidelines; I also understand why reasonable people might disagree with that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Senior minister Penny Mordaunt admitted there were “inconsistencies” in Mr Cummings’ account – saying “there is no doubt he took risks”.
Mr Johnson continued to stand by his aide and insisted it was time to “move on” when he faced intense questioning over the issue in an appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee of senior MPs on Wednesday.
However, former home secretary Amber Rudd added her name to the list of prominent Tory figures saying Mr Cummings should quit.
“Yes, I think he should quit, because he’s making things worse,” Ms Rudd said on ITV’s Peston programme.
Ms Rudd said that, through various Government campaigns, Mr Johnson had seen Mr Cummings as a “talisman, a lucky charm, and that he needs him going forward”.
“Dominic has been a winner for him on these campaigns but he’s not instrumental to good government,” she said.
“And my problem at the moment is that Dominic is being negative for good government. He’s a public servant – it should be about service – and at the moment he is not helping this country.”
Under the new Test and Trace system, if an individual’s test is positive, NHS contact tracers or local public health teams will call, 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.
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.
Amid reports by Sky News that some contact tracers do not have their basic systems up and running yet, the Department of Health insisted that the “vast majority of our 25,000 staff have completed their training”.
The launch comes as:
– The toll of deaths linked to the virus rose to almost 48,000, while at least 188 frontline health and care workers have died after contracting Covid-19.
– The Prime Minister said he has asked scientists to review the two-metre social distancing rule to see if it can be reduced in an effort to help public transport and the hospitality sector.
– Mr Johnson promised to look into a condition of the immigration system which has left people with no state financial support during the coronavirus crisis.
Also on Thursday, the Government’s plans to ease the lockdown will be confirmed in an official review which Downing Street expects will give the all-clear for schools to begin reopening next week.
Downing Street insiders suggested the easing discussed by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove is still dependent on the scientific advice, as is the use of private gardens for socialising.
The road map to easing the lockdown contained the possibility that one household could form a social “bubble” with one other in a mutual group, but it is understood that term was being quietly dropped.
The PM has said all non-essential shops in England can reopen from June 15 after he closed them with the imposed lockdown on March 23.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Cummings “broke the rules” and claimed the Prime Minister’s “unwillingness or inability to do the right thing has left the Government looking untrustworthy, unprincipled”.
Writing in the Daily Mirror, he said the Government had “undermined the very public health advice that is necessary to keep us all safe, just to keep one powerful aide in his job”.