Health secretary Matt Hancock has avoided saying how low coronavirus cases will have to drop before the lockdown can be eased.
At the daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday, Mr Hancock announced a huge programme of testing in an effort to get a picture of the spread of the disease.
Testing and tracing lines of transmission are seen as vital in being able to lift the strict social distancing restrictions that were imposed in Britain on March 23.
But experts say this tactic cannot be carried out until the number of new infections drops very low.
During the press briefing, Mr Hancock refused to be drawn on how much cases would need to fall by in order for this strategy to be implemented.
He also said Britain did not necessarily need to have a large-scale testing regime in place before lockdown measures could start to be relaxed.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street on Thursday in which he disused coronavirus testing
When asked by Beth Rigby of Sky News if a testing and tracing system would need to be up and running before easing the lockdown, Mr Hancock replied that there was ‘no automatic link’ between testing and lifting restrictions.
He reiterated that once the number of new infections dropped off and the rate of transmission fell, then testing could be used as an effective tool.
Mr Hancock said: ‘There is no automatic link between the scale of test, track and trace and any changes to the social distancing measures, so I wouldn’t put a deadline on it.
‘What I would say is that test, track and trace – done effectively – can help to surpass the transmission in a way that allows you then to have less social distancing rules. And critically test, track and trace works more effectively when the rate of new cases is lower, so the lower the rate of new cases the more effectively you can keep it down using test, track and trace rather than having to use heavier social distancing measures.
‘So the link between the two is in fact that once you have full blown tracking and tracing with the test capacity that as John [Newton, national coordinator of the UK coronavirus testing programme] set out we are increasing, allows you to hold down on the level of transmission, under lesser social distancing. But you’ve got to get it down there first for test, track and trace to be effective.’
A researcher inside the lab on Thursday working on a potential COVID-19 vaccine, undertaken by Oxford University. Two volunteers have now received the first vaccine trial
Mr Hancock also said the decision to begin bringing the country out of the lockdown that has crippled the economy and brought the nation to a standstill would be a political one taken by the cabinet, rather than a scientific one.
He added: ‘Our objective is to get the rate of transmission down and that seems to have happened, because instead of an exponential rise as we saw before, we now see a flattening of the curve and then crucially to get the level of transmission down, as in the number of new cases.’
Millions of people are now eligible for a coronavirus test under an expansion of the testing programme announced by Mr Hancock yesterday.
As he seeks to reach his 100,000-tests-a-day target, Mr Hancock said key workers and anyone in their household will now be eligible for tests if they have symptoms of Covid-19.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the lockdown could be eased when around 60 per cent of the population had contracted the virus.
He told the Telegraph: ‘Personally, I suspect that the disease will tail off during June and July, partly because of social distancing, partly because of increased population [herd] immunity, and partly because these sorts of infections tend to spread less readily during the summer.
‘So I suspect there will be some relaxation at that time. But I think it may come back, though less aggressively, in the autumn, and social isolation may need to be strengthened for a while.
‘If a large proportion – somewhere around 60 per cent – of the population become immune, the lockdown will not serve that much more purpose as herd immunity will be at a level that the disease would struggle to spread. So, lockdown over.’
People relaxing while police patrol Regents Park yesterday. Testing has been introduced as a prelude to easing the lockdown imposed on March 23
During the press conference, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, was asked if the current strategy was to push daily new cases as low as possible or to establish a tolerable level of community transmission that would not overwhelm the NHS.
He would not elaborate on the plans, but did say it ‘looks like’ the goal of lowering new cases to protect the NHS ‘has been achieved’.
Key workers on the list eligible for testing are the same as those for access to schools, and include NHS and social care workers, police officers, teachers, social workers, those in the justice system, undertakers, some in local government, supermarket and food production workers, journalists, transport workers and some people in utilities and IT.
Mr Hancock set out his plans for ‘easier, faster and simpler’ testing so that more people can access a Covid-19 test to tell them whether they currently have the virus.
At the daily Downing Street briefing, Mr Hancock said the capacity for carrying out tests was now ‘ahead of our plans’, with the ability to carry out more than 51,000 tests a day.
The test involves taking a swab of the nose and the back of the throat, which can be done by the person themselves either self-administered, or by someone else.
Mr Hancock also set out more details on contact tracing, which is seen as a key route out of the lockdown.
Department of Health figures show 22,000 tests were carried out in the UK on Tuesday, despite the Government having capacity to do more than 51,000
Graphs released during the Downing Street press conference yesterday show the number of new cases plateauing while hospitalisations fall and tests completed rise
Official data also showed how the UK compares to other people in deaths caused by coronavirus, and the numbers of new deaths each day
By isolating people with the virus and then tracing their contacts and isolating them, the hope is that regional outbreaks of the virus can be kept under control.
Northern Ireland plans to introduce a pilot of contact tracing next week, while Mr Hancock said the infrastructure for England would be in place within a ‘matter of weeks’.
He refused, however, to tie the launch of contact tracing with the date of May 7 – the day on which the current lockdown measures are reviewed by ministers.
Mr Hancock said 18,000 people are now being recruited to help with contact tracing, 3,000 of whom are clinicians and public health experts, with training for the remaining 15,000.
A contact tracing app will also be launched so people can tell the NHS when they have Covid-19 and their contacts can be sent an alert telling them to isolate.
Mr Hancock has come under sustained pressure over his 100,000-a-day target after the number of tests carried out has failed to match capacity.
Downing Street said 22,814 coronavirus tests were carried out in the 24 hours up to 9am on Wednesday in England, Scotland and Wales, while capacity is now 51,121 a day.