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Boris Johnson has been accused of “increasingly confused” public health messaging on coronavirus after it emerged that his new “one-metre-plus” social distancing rule will not be part of the NHS Test and Trace system.
HuffPost UK has learned that the government’s flagship service for containing Covid-19 will stick firmly to its current guidance that two metres is the safest distance to prevent its person-to-person spread.
Johnson announced this week that one-metre-plus would be as safe as two metres as long as “mitigations” – such as face coverings and sitting in the same direction – were applied.
The new guidance will kick in from July 4, allowing more businesses such as hair salons, pubs and restaurants to open for the first time in three months.
But the NHS has decided its definition of “close contact” will still be based on the two metre rule, meaning that even if someone wears a mask between one metre and two metres away they will be deemed to be a possible vector for the virus, a government source confirmed.
Under the NHS Test and Trace system, anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 has to self-isolate and report the names of anyone they have had such close contact with for more than 15 minutes. The contacts are then told to self-isolate for 14 days.
So although from July 4 anyone operating the one-metre-plus rule will be deemed safe, the NHS Test and Trace system will formally deem them at risk of catching the virus and take action to prevent further spread.
One key difficulty with incorporating the one-metre-plus rule is that it would make an NHS app – which is already unlikely to be ready before winter – almost impossible, as distance between smartphones is the key metric.
Although sitting side by side is safer than sitting opposite someone, the app could not be able to register orientation, nor whether a mask was worn.
The prime minister made clear that the relaxation of the social distancing rules was a political decision to boost the economy, and some members of the Sage group advising the government have said the change is premature.
After scenes of the public packing onto beaches such as Bournemouth this week, chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned that cases will rise again if people interpret the relaxation as a free for all.
Amid rising concern that the public are already relaxing their distancing, Johnson himself said on Friday that there would be a “serious spike” in coronavirus infections if people take “liberties” with the rules.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told HuffPost UK: “People want to do the right things for themselves and their loved ones.
“But when government agencies are working to different protocols from ministers on the one-metre-plus rule, it exposes the extent to which government messaging is now increasingly confused. Given the virus remains deadly and infection rates are still high, ministers must get a grip.”
It also emerged this week that the PM had decided not to adopt advice from Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies) that mask-wearing should be made compulsory in shops. No.10 said that unlike public transport, the time spent in shops would be brief enough to allow voluntary use of face coverings.
NHS Test and Trace is already facing problems since its launch three weeks ago, with more than a quarter of people testing positive for Covid-19 not reached by the system.
It faces fresh criticism over delays in passing on information to Leicester City Council about an outbreak of cases first made public by Hancock in a No.10 press conference.
Although a local mobile testing unit was installed within days, it took more than seven days to pass on data on the street-by-street level location of the cases.
Ashworth said the delay “simply isn’t good enough”.
He said: “Matt Hancock announced Leicester was experiencing an outbreak but it took a whole week for Leicester Council’s Director of Public Health to receive from Test and Trace the specific postcode data that’s crucial to tracking this virus. We need speed and focus to break transmission chains and keep people safe.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.