Michael Gove today revealed the Government has recruited more than 17,000 coronavirus contact tracers putting ministers on track to hit their 18,000 target.
The staff will play a key role in efforts to prevent a second wave of the deadly disease as they are tasked with figuring out where people who test positive have been and who they may have come into contact with.
Mr Gove’s announcement came just days after his fellow Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis said the Government had only managed to recruit people for 1,500 of the roles.
However, there are concerns about the long term future of the ‘test, track and trace’ programme after it was claimed staff are only being hired on initial three month contracts.
Health experts believe such a scheme will need to be in place for as long as 18 months.
Michael Gove today revealed more than 17,000 of 18,000 contact tracer jobs have now been filled
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on April 23 that he intended to recruit an army of 18,000 people to work as contact tracers.
Of those, some 15,000 will be tasked with physically identifying and alerting people who may have been exposed to the virus, so they can protect themselves and others around them by self-isolating.
The remaining 3,000 will be Public Health England experts who will focus on stopping outbreaks in critical settings like care homes and hospitals.
Mr Gove was asked this morning on Sky News how many of the roles have now been filled and he replied: ‘Just over 17,000.’
Asked if the Government will have 18,000 by next week, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said: ‘Yes. Here I have to praise the work of the Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
‘In the past people have seen Matt and the Government set ambitious targets and they have said “oh, the target on testing, that won’t be met” – Matt met that target.
‘It is now the case as I say that more than 17,000 people have been recruited for contact tracing so we are on course to meet that target again.
‘It is more evidence that we have in Matt an energetic and determined Health Secretary who is throwing everything into the fight against the virus and making sure that we mobilise a united, national effort.’
Mr Gove said the programme will be up and running ‘by the end of this month’.
The contact tracing initiative will be used to try to minimise the spread of the disease in the future by identifying people who are sick and removing them from the community until they have recovered.
Experts have suggested the scheme will be needed for up to 18 months but The Sunday Telegraph today reported that people are only being hired for an initial three month period.
Adverts for the roles state they are for a ‘minimum of 12 weeks’ or an ‘initial 10-12 weeks.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘Contact tracing is a vital part of the test, trace and isolate infrastructure that must be in place for lockdown restrictions to be eased.
‘This has to be a long-term role and led by local expertise in public health services and primary care.
‘These adverts suggest ministers don’t understand the scale of what is needed.’
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said last week that just 1,500 roles had been filled
Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Lewis said on May 15 that while there had been ‘about 15,000’ applications for the contact tracer roles only 1,500 staff had been hired.
Mr Lewis told Sky News: ‘I don’t think we’ve got to 18,000 [contact tracers] just yet. I think there’s about 15,000 applications… we’re looking to, as you say, get up to 18,000.’
Pushed again on how many of the 15,000 applicants have actually been given a job, he added: ‘As of this morning, I’m not sure of exactly how many of the 15,000 have been hired. Earlier in the week, it was about 1,500. It would have gone up since then.’
The contact tracers are set to be deployed at the same time as the NHSX mobile app which is currently being trialled on residents on the Isle of Wight ahead of a national roll out.
It uses bluetooth to detect when two phones have been near each other for a sustained period of time.
When someone develops symptoms of Covid-19, they notify the app which then uses the Bluetooth log to inform other users that they may also have the virus and need to be checked.