Health and Social Care Minister Helen Whately was drawn into a fiery row with Question Time host Fiona Bruce over the ‘loopholes’ in the Government’s new track and trace system.
The low-tech test, track and trace system launched on Thursday and could see healthy Brits forced to self-isolate for two weeks at home if they have been in contact with a confirmed case.
Call handlers will interview those in England who have tested positive and ask for details of anyone they have recently been near.
However, the app is not yet ready and a number of issues surround the scheme including what people will do about work and child care.
This sparked a heated exchange during which Ms Whately began tripping over her words as Ms Bruce said: “Follow the guidance, unless you can’t?” in relation to looking after a child if you have to suddenly self-isolate.
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The panelists and the 12 virtual audience members from Glasgow – taking part via video link – had been debating the lack of clarity in the latest proposals and whether Brits will continue to be so compliant in light of the Dominic Cummings scandal.
The test and track system is reliant on people being honest about who they have been in contact with, for example – which some on the show felt the Government can no longer necessarily expect.
While audience member Ginette, a cleaning firm owner, said the new system “could close me down every single week” because her self-employed staff may have to isolate repeatedly or look after children during working hours.
“Who’s going to pick up the pieces?” she added, with it also being pointed out the Government’s furlough support for the self employed runs out in a matter of days.
Ms Whatley said: “What we’ve seen so far is people consciously following the guidance and in fact the guidance has included recognising some situations will be more difficult, for instance, if you are looking after someone who is particularly vulnerable or a childcare situation.”
Ms Bruce said: “Just to be clear, if you have a childcare situation then, Helen, since you mentioned it – if you have a problem with childcare and you have to be identified as one of the people who has to stay at home for two weeks, you may not necessarily have to stay home?”
The minister responded: “You clearly have to ensure your child is safe as any parent should do so…”
But Ms Bruce cut in: “So if you have to leave home to do that, even if you have been told to self isolate, you can do that?”
Ms Whatley said: “If you are contacted because you are a contact of somebody who’s got symptoms and told to isolate at home, you should be able to do so with your child. Everyone will have their scenarios.”
Ms Bruce said: “But just to be clear, because it’s important, because we’re all going to have to adjust to this now, this new system – if you are told to self-isolate at home for two weeks either because you have symptoms or you’ve been in close contact with someone who has symptoms but you have problems with that – you find that difficult because of child care issues – you can behave otherwise?”
Ms Whately responded: “You should follow the guidance – I don’t think anyone is suggesting you should have a child in an unsafe situation…”
“So follow the guidance, unless you can’t?” Ms Bruce cut in.
The minister, who had began tripping over her words, said: “No, that’s not what I’m saying, actually, at all.
“You should absolutely follow the guidance and that’s been the case all the way through.”
“But you’re saying unless…” the host began to say.
But Ms Whately composed herself to add: “The guidance has always said that safety would be a factor, and you should clearly be a responsible parent.
“But I think what’s really important is that people follow the guidance.
“And through doing that, that’s how we manage to keep the infection rate under control and so life can get back to normal or closer to normal – which would be so much better for everybody.”
As part of the new scheme, call handlers will interview those in England who have tested positive and ask for details of anyone they have recently been near.
Recent contacts who do not have symptoms will be called and asked to self-isolate at home for 14 days.
Close contact is defined as being closer than 2metres to someone with symptoms for more than 15 minutes.
Data will be analysed to decide whether workplaces, schools, housing estates or blocks of flats need to be locked down to quell local outbreaks.
As the NHS test and trace app is not ready yet, all tracing will be performed manually.
During Thursday’s Question Time, Ms Bruce also brought up the apparent absurdity in the guidelines surrounding No10 allowing Brits to have BBQs with members of a different household.
Those in attendance must remain two metres apart and outside – leading the host to poke fun at the idea only people with huge gardens could comply – while those in England can have six attendees but Scots can have eight.