Confusion reigns over how many contact tracers the U.K. has hired

Key Points
  • Health Minister Matt Hancock pledged to recruit 18,000 manual contact tracers by mid-May. 
  • On Friday, a senior politician said only 1,500 had been recruited, although a government spokesperson told CNBC Monday that this figure was out of date.
  • On Sunday, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the number of people hired was in fact over 17,000. 
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock arrives for the weekly Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on 21 May, 2019 in London, England.
Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

There's been a lot of confusion about what's going on with the coronavirus contact-tracer jobs in the U.K., which have been described as a crucial pillar in the government's lockdown-lifting "test, track and trace" initiative. 

On April 28, U.K. Health Minister Matt Hancock pledged to recruit 18,000 human contract tracers by mid-May to keep tabs on Covid-19 patients and their contacts.

That included about 15,000 call handlers and 3,000 health professionals.

They are expected to work alongside a new National Health Service app, which is being tested on the Isle of Wight and is expected to go nationwide at the end of this month. The expectation is that if you have symptoms of Covid-19, you tell the app and contact tracers then reach out to people you've been close to and warn them they may be at risk on infection.

However, despite the large number of jobs apparently available in this areait wasn't immediately clear how members of the public should go about applying for either type of role. Weeks went by and online job listings remained elusive, leading to concerns that the government was going to miss its target by some margin. 

It looked like those fears had come true on Friday when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said only 1,500 of the 18,000 roles or about 8% — had been filled.

"I don't think we've got to 18,000 just yet, I think there's about 15,000 applications, we're looking to as you say get up to 18,000," Lewis told Sky News. 

When pressed for a more specific answer, Lewis said: "As of this morning, I'm not sure of exactly how many of the 15,000 have been hired, earlier in the week it was about 1,500, it would have gone up since then."

On Sunday, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove looked to provide some clarity on the matter, telling Sky News that the government had in fact hired more than 17,000 contact tracers — a big jump on the 1,500 figure given by Lewis just two days earlier. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told CNBC on Monday that the figures provided by Lewis were out of date.

Meanwhile, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson said Monday the government was "very confident" all 18,000 "trackers" will be in place this week as planned.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, not one contact tracer has been hired. 

Lack of transparency

The U.K. government has been criticized for not being transparent over its strategy for tackling the coronavirus. 

It says it is working in partnership with a number of organisations that are "experts" in call handling, but it has not said which ones. It added that it has been using a number of recruitment firms to fill the roles but again, it did not name them.

There is also little evidence to show how effective contact-tracing apps are at this stage. 

Imi Tew

The NHS app is based on a "centralized" framework, meaning people's information will be stored on state-operated servers. There are concerns that the app may not be interoperable with other nations' apps, or even work at all. 

The Guardian reported on Sunday that it had seen emails from recruitment firm HR Go to applicants stating that hiring for contact tracers had been paused while the government considers which app to use. 

"Thank you for your online application for this role. Unfortunately earlier today the roles were put on hold. This is due to a delay in the launch of the 'Track and Trace' app itself while the government considers an alternative app," an email reportedly said.

Other nations have developed their own contact-tracing apps with mixed success. 

In the U.S., states have been urged to hire 180,000 contact tracers, by a bipartisan group of prominent health experts and public officials.