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Coronavirus: Testing and contact tracing will play pivotal role in ending lockdown, says Swann

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Health minister Robin Swann (David Young/PA)

Health minister Robin Swann (David Young/PA)

Health minister Robin Swann (David Young/PA)

Testing and contact tracing will play a key role in ending the coronavirus lockdown, Robin Swann has said.

The Health Minister said anyone with Covid-19 symptoms should book a test without delay, adding the "full service is now operational". "This is a major long-term programme, given the continuing threat from Covid-19 and the potential for local clusters and outbreaks of infection as we move out of the current phase of our response."

Mr Swann also told how the current contact tracing provision will be scaled up to include teams recruited directly to staff the operation.

"This will include professionals such as nurses and Environmental Health Officers for contact tracing with lead clinicians and health protection consultants advising on complex situations and local clusters or outbreaks," he said.

The Health Minister said there would be a call centre element to the service, and that digital tools will be developed to complement the telephone-based contact tracing, with options under active consideration.

"Test, trace and protect will help release the lockdown, keep people safe and protect our health service. Everyone has to play their part. That means getting tested early when we have symptoms, helping contact tracing by providing details of contacts, and self-isolating when advised in order to protect others."

Mr Swann's comments came after Arlene Foster told how Northern Ireland could be contact tracing for "up to two years" in the fight against coronavirus.

Appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, the First Minister said contact tracing, which has been up and running for two weeks, was going "well", adding people are listening to official advice and taking support offered to them.

"The contact tracing is very much part of coming out of the restrictions," she said. "It's about testing, tracing, isolating and then supporting those who we need to contact in relation to the tracing.

"We've been very pleased with the way in which, when people are contacted, they listen to the advice, they listen to what we're saying, they take the support that we're offering to them, and it is going well." Speaking yesterday, the DUP leader said around 30 cases per day are contacted and those they have been in contact with are then spoken to.

She added: "We are making good progress in relation to that and we're very pleased."

Mrs Foster explained a number of staff from health and social care have been put in place, as well as some graduates, retired doctors and nurses and said the system would be scaled up and down "as necessary".

"We believe that we're going to have to be involved in this sort of contact tracing for quite some time, possibly even up to two years to make sure that we know where the virus is in our community," said Mrs Foster.

"But it's something that is forming very much the cornerstone of coming out of lockdown and being able to relax those regulations, which we understand are very draconian."

Virologist at Queen's University Dr Connor Bamford said securing an effective contact tracing app would be crucial.

"Testing and contact tracing will help, but we also need things like a contact tracing app," he said.

"Scientists around the world have noticed that this virus spreads quite fast and in a difficult way, because people can spread it even if they're not that sick so we need an app or something along those lines.

"We need to be pushing for an app that's really effective and gets around the privacy concerns and also in Northern Ireland there is the added difficulty of a shared border with the Republic and any app would have to be working both sides of that border, but with the EU and Brexit, I don't know what way that would work.

"Contact tracing, yes it's good that it's happening, but we need to think of the next step, and that's the app."

Belfast Telegraph