World Health Organisation (WHO) experts have emphasised the need for a successful test, track and isolate programme to be in place to avoid a possible second wave of Covid-19 infections in the autumn.
Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s European regional director, said contact tracing and quarantining people who may be infected with coronavirus was an “essential element” in mitigating a potential second wave.
The comments come as MPs were told on Wednesday that the highly-anticipated NHS contact-tracing app may not be ready until the winter and “isn’t a priority” for the government. The app is currently being piloted in the Isle of Wight.
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Speaking at a WHO briefing on Thursday, Dr Kluge said it is possible for a second wave to occur when autumn begins, in the same way flu cases peak towards the end of the year.
“It’s well possible that when the autumn starts and we have also the seasonal influenza, there is the possibility of a seasonal effect on the virus – but we’re not sure yet – that then we will see a second wave.
“So the lesson is that we have to implement what we know works – at the core of the strategy is to find as early as possible, isolate, test suspected people from Covid, and if needs be treat them without any stigma or discrimination.
“At the same time, (governments need) to track and quarantine contacts – contact tracing is an essential element of this strategy,” he added. “But there is no single solution.”
The Department of Health said on Thursday that 5,949 people testing positive for Covid between 4-10 June were referred to the tracing scheme, of whom 4,366 were contacted and provided details of their movements – likely representing only a small proportion of the actual number of people infected.
Dr Kluge warned earlier this week that the UK remains in a “very active phase of the pandemic” and urged caution in lifting restrictions.
He told The Guardian on Monday: “Contact tracing is key especially as the UK starts to relax the social and physical distancing measures.
“There has to be a robust track-and-trace system in place of operation.”
The NHSX app, which aims to trace contacts of people infected with coronavirus, has been heralded as a fundamental pillar of the UK’s response to the pandemic.
But Lord Bethel, the health minister responsible for the app, told the Science and Technology Committee that the delay in introducing the app was caused in part by a fear of “freaking out” the public, as well as “technical challenges” in the system.
The government was poised on Thursday to pivot away from a homegrown app to one used in Europe, and developed by Google and Apple.
Additional reporting by agencies