The PM says the UK will have a “world-beating” tracing system from June, as he was accused of leaving a “huge hole” in the country’s coronavirus defences.
Boris Johnson said 25,000 contact tracers, able to track 10,000 new cases a day, would be in place by 1 June.
This also marks the earliest possible date for the gradual reopening of schools and shops in England.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had challenged the PM over the absence of a tracing system since March.
The PM was also questioned over testing in care homes during the pandemic.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir asked why there had been “no effective” attempt to trace the contacts of those infected with Covid-19 since 12 March “when tracing was abandoned”.
Mr Johnson replied: “We have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating and yes, it will be in place by June 1.”
He added that 24,000 contact tracers had already been recruited.
Contact tracing is a system used to slow the spread of infectious diseases like coronavirus, and is already being used in Hong Kong, Singapore and Germany.
One method involves the infected person listing all the people with whom they have had prolonged and recent contact, to be tracked down by phone or email.
Another uses a location-tracking mobile app, which identifies people the patient has been in contact with.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said last week that a contact tracing app – part of the test, track and trace plan – would be rolled out across England from mid-May, but that has now been pushed back.
Mr Johnson did not mention the app – currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight – as part of his plan for 1 June.
The PM also insisted that the UK was now testing more than “virtually every country in Europe”, and promised that the system would be stepped up in the next fortnight.
Do not expect a fully-functioning perfect track-and-trace system to be up-and-running by 1 June.
What will be launched will effectively be a prototype. The app may not be ready by that point, but the army of contract tracers will be available.
Given where we are today (and plenty argue mistakes have been made, which means we are in a weaker position than we should be) this is perhaps understandable.
The government does not have the luxury of testing and piloting this behind the scenes for months to come.
So, the system will have to evolve as it goes.
The question is whether it will be robust enough to provide a track-and-trace service that will work on a basic level and help contain local outbreaks, which of course is vital as we gradually move out of lockdown.
The prime minister’s assertion that it will be able to deal with 10,000 new cases a day is interesting.
Surveillance data provided by the Office for National Statistics suggests we may well be seeing around that number.
The work that has been done so far is about to be put to the test.
Also at PMQs, Sir Keir queried whether people were being tested in care homes, after the boss of a body representing care homes in England said on Tuesday that testing remained an issue.
Mr Johnson said 125,000 care home staff have been tested and that the government was “absolutely confident” it would be able to increase testing in care homes and “across the whole of the community”.
He added: “And thanks to the hard work of [Health Secretary Matt Hancock] and his teams, we will get up to 200,000 tests in the country by the end of this month.”
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson rejected calls to scrap the “surcharge” for overseas NHS and care home workers to use the health service.
Currently, the fee is £400 a year, but is expected to increase later this year.
Sir Keir told the Commons that it should be dropped, saying the Labour party supported criticism of the fee as a “gross insult” to international healthcare workers.
It comes as the prime minister said the deaths of 181 NHS workers and 131 social care workers had reportedly involved Covid-19.
In other developments:
- At least 11 councils have expressed safety concerns over the government’s plan to reopen English primary schools to some pupils on 1 June
- Derby-based firm Rolls-Royce, which makes plane engines, has said it will cut 9,000 jobs because of the coronavirus crisis hitting the airline industry
- War veteran Captain Tom Moore who raised £32m for NHS charities has said he is “overawed” after finding out he will receive a knighthood
- The boss of Marks and Spencer’s has warned that customers “may never shop the same way again”
- Outsourcing firm Serco has apologised after accidentally sharing the email addresses of almost 300 contact tracers