UK track and trace programme – with 18,000 trackers – to launch next week

The Government’s task force of 18,000 contract tracers will launch next week, Downing Street has confirmed.

The force will be tasked with tracking down people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

From next week 15,000 people on the phone, and 300o in person, will try to contain the spread of the virus by targetting testing at people who have potentially been exposed.

Public health experts have said the tracers would be essential to stop the second wave of infections once the lockdown restrictions have been eased.

People once identified will be asked to take a test – probably by post

The Prime Minister’s Offical Spokesman confirmed that the programme would launch next week, but wouldn’t confirm what day.

The UK Government was tracing contacts in the very first stage of the virus, but stopped as the country went into lockdown.

This decision has been heavily criticised as the track, trace and test regime has been used very effectively in other countries – notably Germany and South Korea as they aim to ease their lockdowns.

The Government has been recruiting thousands to work in the call centres, though adverts suggested they only pays £9-an-hour despite their importance, just 28p more than the minimum wage.

It came as Matt Hancock confirmed that former TalkTalk chief executive Baroness Dido Harding has been appointed to lead the contact tracing programme crucial to easing the coronavirus lockdown.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Wednesday announced the Conservative peer would head the test, track and trace initiative to suppress the spread of coronavirus.

She led the telecoms giant when it suffered a massive cyber attack in 2015 when hackers accessed 157,000 customers’ details, including bank account numbers.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) fined TalkTalk £400,000 over the breach, which ultimately cost the company an estimated £77 million loss.

The App is also expected to be a large part of the track and trace operation

Key to the contact tracing programme is an NHS app which ministers have insisted is safe despite concerns over individual privacy and data protection.

Baroness Harding is currently chairman of NHS Improvement and has held senior roles at Tesco and Sainsbury’s during her career.

Mr Hancock underlined the importance of the contact tracing programme, adding: “That that works as a great big national project is an incredibly important piece of work and I can’t think of anybody better than Dido to really give it the leadership that it needs.”

The ICO issued TalkTalk with a record fine in 2016 for security failings that it said had allowed customers’ data to be accessed “with ease”.

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Some 15,656 bank account numbers were accessed during the cyber attack in October 2015.

Baroness Harding starts the new unpaid role immediately, and will report directly to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.

She will lead on the Covid-19 app, swab and antibody testing, contact tracing and national surveillance – as well as immunity certification.

Baroness Harding said: “I welcome the opportunity to take on this role and help the brilliant efforts being made by the NHS and healthcare system to drive down infection rates and contain this virus.”

MPs in the Joint Human Rights Committee have urged the Government to put in place effective safeguards to protect individual privacy before rolling out the contact tracing app.

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