Only 1,500 of the 18,000 people the government wants to recruit as contact tracers have been appointed, a cabinet minister has admitted.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, told Sky News on Friday there had been 15,000 applications, but only 1,500 had been hired by the start of the week.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has talked of recruiting 18,000 contact tracers, but the scheme is still evolving, with input from regional directors of public health. The government has suggested 15,000 of the recruits should be call handlers, so only 3,000 would be trained public health staff, including environmental health officers and probably sexual health staff with experience of contact tracing and knowledge of their communities.
But as the government’s mid-May deadline for the recruitment of 18,000 contact tracers passed, shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves called the approach “a shambles”.
In a letter to the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, Reeves called for answers as to whether there would be enough contact tracers in place to allow the UK to ease its way out of the current lockdown. She said Labour thought it was a mistake to have stopped contact tracing in March, and said it supported moves to establish a “comprehensive strategy for contact tracing both through the use of a suitable mobile phone app and a manual tracing service”.
Separately, with teaching unions due to meet government scientific advisers to discuss the proposed return to school for some children, Lewis said he believed it was possible for young children to practise social distancing.
“I think one of the things teachers are able to do, both in the classroom and outside the classroom, and all of us as parents and people in society, is to continue to educate each other around social distance,” he told BBC Breakfast. “So yes, even in a school environment I think it is important that we do what we can to encourage and explain and educate around social distancing.”
He said the return to school was important “not just so that parents can get to work, but particularly [for those] age groups it is a really key time for children to be taking in that knowledge – and a few weeks out of school can make quite a big difference”.
Asked on Sky News if he would be comfortable for his children to return to schools, Lewis said “yes, absolutely”, while adding that his children were no longer school age.
“I think I would be very comfortable with my children going back in a safe environment with social distancing, with schools able to advise children about all of those practical things we need to do in terms of staying alert – washing hands, practising social distancing,” he said.
Lewis also insisted that using public transport was safe “if we’re practising proper social distancing”, adding that he recognised that if everyone used public transport it would be a challenge.
“That is why we’re so clear in saying to people we must follow social distancing to keep on top of this R level, that is why we’re saying to people don’t use public transport unless you absolutely have to,” he told Sky News.
Lewis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the government’s guidance to care homes in March was “clear”, after the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, showed evidence at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday that government advice at the start of the outbreak had said it was “unlikely that people receiving care in care homes will become infected”.
Lewis said: “First of all, I think it was disappointing to see Keir sort of quoting things out of context at PMQs and playing a bit of politics at a stage where I think people just want to see us focused on looking after people’s healthcare.”
Starmer was quoting from government guidance published on 25 February, where the exact phrase was included as an explanation for why face masks were not generally required within care home settings.
“We had clear guidance that we were giving to care homes at that point in time at that early stage in March,” he said. “We had very, very low levels of death and spread of the virus and we were giving guidance to care homes around isolation for those patients who required it in terms of having symptoms from the virus.”