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Swann says public support will be critical as NI moves to contact tracing

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An operator works in a call centre dedicated to Covid-19 tracing in the N-Allo offices in Brussels

An operator works in a call centre dedicated to Covid-19 tracing in the N-Allo offices in Brussels

AFP via Getty Images

An operator works in a call centre dedicated to Covid-19 tracing in the N-Allo offices in Brussels

A contact tracing programme to track the spread of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland will rely on large-scale public compliance, the Health Minister has said.

Robin Swann confirmed that the pilot scheme has now been officially rolled out to trace contacts linked to all confirmed virus cases here.

The region is the first part of the UK to run such a programme.

Contact tracing involves identifying people in close contact with someone who has tested positive, and informing them of the development. It is seen as a key route out of lockdown.

Contact tracing in the UK largely stopped on March 12 as the number of cases soared and the country switched its strategy from 'contain' to 'delay'.

On April 27, health officials in Northern Ireland began an "enhanced" contact tracing pilot.

Contract tracing for all cases here began on Monday.

Speaking at Stormont's health committee yesterday, Mr Swann revealed that since Monday, 36 positive Covid-19 cases had been handled by the programme, with 35 successfully completed.

He said the scheme - which is the first of its kind in the UK - will likely be in place for at least a year, adding that the contact tracing programme was a "major commitment".

"This work is designed to break the chain of transmission of the virus by identifying people with Covid-19, tracing people who have been in close contact with them and supporting those people to self-isolate, so that if they have the disease, they are less likely to transmit it to others," he said.

Stressing participation is voluntary, Mr Swann said the success of the programme lies on wide uptake by the public.

"Support from the public will be absolutely critical to the success of this strategy as we will be relying on citizens to report symptoms, be tested and to follow self-isolation advice if recommended," he added.

Mr Swann hailed the scheme as having an important role in the "fightback" against Covid-19, adding: "This is another example of the herculean work right across the HSC system to fight back against Covid-19 and keep people safe."

Dr Jackie Hyland, consultant in health protection at the Public Health Agency, said anyone who participates in the programme will be engaged by contact tracing staff if they are confirmed to have Covid-19.

"We will ask them if there are people they have been close to who may be at risk of becoming ill (their contacts)," she said.

"A contact tracing team member will then phone these contacts and talk to them about their risk of infection. Everyone who has the infection and who is a close contact will have to self-isolate."

Mr Swann said he was aware of data privacy concerns relating to the NHSX phone app - which is being piloted for use in England - insisting that a separate app here will be developed which will be able to interact with the Republic's app.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally said the UK Government's decision to suspend the 'find - test - trace - isolate' (FTTI) approach in March has been disastrous.

Urging cross-border collaboration, he states: "Northern Ireland has an opportunity to decide how best to implement the FTTI program and it could do worse than exploiting the resources and expertise on its doorstep."

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said he believed a testing and tracing system will be up and running elsewhere in the UK by June 1, but the roll-out of the app will come later.

Boris Johnson said 25,000 staff would be in place by the start of next month - the earliest possible date earmarked for the gradual reopening of schools and shops in England - and they would be capable of tracking the contacts of up to 10,000 new Covid-19 cases a day.

The government's deputy chief scientific adviser, Professor Dame Angela McLean, has said that the modelling for changes to the lockdown were based on a "highly effective track, trace and isolate system" being in place.

At Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Johnson said: "We're making fast progress in testing and tracing and I have great confidence that by June 1, we will have a system that will enable us, that will help us very greatly to defeat this disease and move the country forward."

Belfast Telegraph