Matt Hancock

UK health secretary Matt Hancock has set a target for recruiting contact tracers

Pippa Fowles/DPA/PA Images

The UK government has refused to say how many covid-19 contact tracers it has employed, with less than three weeks to go until its target of recruiting 18,000 of them by mid-May.

Health secretary Matt Hancock set this deadline on Tuesday, but could not put a figure on how had been recruited at that point.

“I’m sorry I don’t have the information to hand as to exactly how many we’ve recruited, but that is underway,” he told New Scientist. “I don’t have the data to hand but I’ll try to find that for you,” he added.

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However, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has now told New Scientist it is not disclosing the number. A spokesperson confirmed that recruitment had begun and said work was underway to ensure a rapid increase in tracers, but would not say how many there are now.

Contact tracers interview people who have tested positive for covid-19 to establish their potential close contacts with others. They then contact people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus to advise them to self-isolate. Some of the 18,000 are expected to be existing and recently retired healthcare professionals, who will be recruited over the next few weeks.

“The NHS is developing a contact tracing app, which alongside effective tracing and testing, will pave the way to safely reducing current social distancing measures,” says a DHSC spokesperson. The 18,000 contact tracers are meant to in place by the time the UK’s National Health Service launches its contact-tracing app in mid-May, so the two can work in tandem.

The government had also promised to reach 100,000 covid-19 tests a day by today, but it will not be known until Friday or Saturday whether the target has been hit or missed, due to a lag in data gathering.

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