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18 May 2020updated 06 Oct 2020 9:45am

Evening summary: Testing our patience

By Samuel Horti

The government has now missed its target of having a coronavirus contact tracing system up and running by “the middle of this month”, as laid out by Health Secretary Matt Hancock on 4 May. We learned today that it has recruited around 21,500 contact tracers for the system, a third of which are medical professionals – both figures higher than ministers’ initial aim. But the full system, which involves both the contact tracers and an NHS app, will now be rolled out at some point “in the weeks ahead… I can’t be any more precise at this stage,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said at this afternoon’s press conference.

Whether the government will press ahead with the next phase of lifting lockdown without the system remains to be seen. Raab said the track and trace regime was only one part of the government’s approach, and that the number of infections and the reproduction rate of the virus were particularly key in deciding next steps. But he also pointed out that the 1 June was only the earliest possible date for “phase two” of the lockdown response. “We’ve not committed ourselves to anything at this point in time,” he said. Was he, perhaps, signalling the government would wait a little longer if the track and trace system was not ready to go? We’ll hopefully learn more in the coming days.

In other news, the government added anosmia, or loss of smell (and with it a potential loss of taste), to its list of coronavirus symptoms that warrant self-isolation. It comes more than a month after experts called it a key symptom of coronavirus. Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said that the government’s scientific advisers had been carefully monitoring data on symptoms, and that anosmia only presented as a lone symptom of the virus very rarely.

As it expanded its list of symptoms, the government also expanded its testing regime. Anybody over the age of five with a coronavirus symptom is now eligible for a free test, Hancock announced today.

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Finally, Raab was pushed on the £625 surcharge migrant care workers must pay to use the NHS, despite the vital service they provide. Would the charge be scrapped? He responded by “paying tribute” to those care workers – but said the government had no plans to alter the charge.

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