LONDON – After two months of lockdown and more than 37,000 coronavirus deaths, Britain on Wednesday finally rolled out a countrywide “test and trace” program -- an enormous undertaking meant to help isolate the virus and return the country to some sense of normality.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson also hopes the program, which starts in England on Thursday, will shift the nation’s attention away from a furor over allegations his t op aide flouted the government’s own lockdown rules with a cross-country trip.
The test and trace project involves 50,000 workers, including 25,000 contact-tracers hired to track down the contacts of anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. The goal is to isolate the infected before they spread the virus. Similar programs are being introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Johnson said test and trace could “unlock the prison” of lockdown.
He acknowledged that Britain was unprepared to mount such an operation when the outbreak first hit. Britain’s official coronavirus death toll stands at 37,460, the highest total in the world after the United States.
“To be absolutely blunt, we didn’t have the enzymes, we didn’t have the test kits, we just didn’t have the volume, nor did we have enough experienced trackers ready to mount the kind of operation they did in some other East Asian countries, for instance,” Johnson told a committee of lawmakers.
“And I think the brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of (previous outbreaks of) SARS or MERS, and we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed.”
Britain has had small tracking and testing programs for diseases such as tuberculosis, but the sheer scale of this project is a challenge. Anyone with symptoms will be told to get a test, which they can order by phone or online. If they test positive their close contacts will be traced and told to isolate for 14 days, even if they have no symptoms.
“It requires all of us to do our civic duty,’’ said Dido Harding, the former telecoms executive appointed to head the test and trace program.
“Instead of 60 million people being in national lockdown, a much smaller number of us will be told that we need to stay at home,’’ Harding said.
While people could potentially be fined for noncompliance, Harding said she hoped that would not be needed. But the appeal to Britons’ sense of civic duty could not have come at a worse time for the government.
Though the public has responded better than politicians expected to the directives to stay home, a scandal involving Johnson’s top aide has prompted fury among people who have already sacrificed personal freedom for the public good.
Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings drove 250 miles (400 kilometers) from London to his parents’ house in northeast England while he was falling ill with suspected COVID-19 — despite stay-at-home rules that the government had imposed on the rest of the country.
Cummings says he traveled to the family farm so that his nieces could care for his 4-year-old son if he and his wife both became sick. But that explanation has prompted fury with many Britons, who say they were unable to attend funerals and visit elderly relatives, among other struggles, in order to follow government rules.
Anger has gone well beyond partisan politics. At least 30 lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative Party have called on Cummings to resign, citing an outpouring of fury from their constituents.
But Johnson appears determined to retain the aide seen as instrumental to his rise to power — even if it erodes public trust in Britain’s response to the pandemic. The prime minister refused Wednesday to hold an official inquiry into Cummings' actions.
Facing questioning by Parliament’s Liaison Committee of senior lawmakers, Johnson said an inquiry wouldn’t be “a very good use of official time.”
“I totally understand public indignation, I totally understand that, but I do think that ... it would be much better if we could now move on and focus on the next steps,” he said — like the test and trace program.
James Naismith, professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford, said the test and trace program was “welcome news.”
“The challenges of operating such a system must not be underestimated, however, and there are bound to (be) teething problems,” he said.
One thing missing so far is a mobile phone app meant to complement the tracing work. A pilot project began earlier this month but government officials have refused to say when it will be released — or what is holding up the project, though some lawmakers have challenged it on privacy grounds.
Harding said that the app would be up and running “soon,” but did not give a date.
“I view the app as the cherry on the cake, not as the cake itself,” she said.