The Prime Minister has pinned hopes on the new test and trace app, along with the measures announced today by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, as a key driver in preserving jobs.
Speaking in Northamptonshire where he was talking to the police about enforcing new coronavirus laws, Boris Johnson told the BBC that downloading the new track and trace app, available from today, “was the best way to stop the spread of the virus and would be backed up by fines for people who don’t follow the guidance”.
“It’s about working together to drive down the pandemic,” he said. He called Sunak’s proposals “creative and imaginative” and said he was being “totally realistic” about the viability question of future employment.
Impact of Covid-19 on jobs
He said he wasn’t in parliament to support his chancellor because it was vital to meet the police and spell out the “corollaries” of failing to comply.
“The crucial thing is to follow the guidance,” he said.
However, health secretary Matt Hancock has said the downloading of the app, NHS COVID-19, is not compulsory.
He will say today that the launch is “an important step forward”, and urge people to use the app “to protect themselves and their loved ones”.
When this was put to him by the BBC, Johnson said: “If you’re told you’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus you must follow the NHS advice.”
People who have come into contact with those with the virus will be required by law to self-isolate from 28 September, supported by payment of £500 for those on lower incomes who cannot work from home and have lost income as a result.
New fines for those breaching self-isolation rules will start at £1,000 – bringing this in line with the penalty for breaking quarantine after international travel – but could increase to up to £10,000 for repeat offences and for the most egregious breaches, including for those preventing others from self-isolating.
The government has spelt out that this could include business owners who threaten self-isolating staff with redundancy if they do not come to work.
A problem with the app is that one in three people told to isolate by the app will have been given a “false positive”, in which it will have wrongly calculated they had been within two metres of an infectious person for 15 minutes. This is because of the app’s reliance on Bluetooth signals, which can be affected by nearby objects.
Johnson did not address this issue but said: “Self isolation is the best way to stop the spread of the virus. I don’t want to add extra burdens on the police at all but what they must do now is help the public stop the spread of the virus.”
It was put to the Prime Minister that people doing the right thing, ie downloading the app, could be the ones who were penalised by fines if they didn’t then fully comply; people who didn’t know they had the virus would continue to mingle with others without being fined.
To this, the Prime Minister simply reiterated that people should follow NHS advice.
NHS testing officials now say that the app’s main benefit could be to prompt people to stick to social distancing and hygiene rules.
Developers are aiming for up to a third of the population of England and Wales to download the app. Scotland released its own app this month and Northern Ireland launched one in July.
Dr Layla McCay, director at the NHS Confederation, warned that access to the testing system, with the advent of the new app, must be improved: “New infections are rising rapidly in the general population, and ongoing challenges with the test and trace system put the health service and its staff in a challenging position as we enter a new high-risk period. We hope the new test and trace app will help by improving the efficiency with which people can be reached and asked to self-isolate, but access to testing must be improved alongside increased tracing capacity. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of thousands of tests are technically available if the people who need them can’t access them.”