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Vaughan Gething, Minister for Health and Social Services

First published:
27 May 2020
Last updated:

I am providing a written update to members on progress in implementing our Test, Trace, Protect strategy.

On 13 May I published our Test, Trace, Protect strategy that sets out how we intend to find a way for people in Wales to live and work alongside the virus whilst containing its spread. The Test, Trace, Protect strategy explained how we will enhance health surveillance in the community, undertake effective and extensive contact tracing, and support people to self-isolate where required to do so.

This week, the First Minister will confirm what, if any, easements to lockdown rules and social distancing will take place in Wales. Welsh Government decisions will continue to be based on scientific evidence and advice. Whenever easements are made and whatever form they take, implementing our Test, Trace, Protect strategy will be a key enabler. We have made further progress in developing our testing capacity and making sure that we will be ready for contact tracing. Future relaxations of lockdown measures will be dependent on everyone following advice set out in our Test, Trace, Protect strategy, including self-isolating when required.

The scale of testing capacity needed in Wales and indeed across the UK to support these purposes and in particular Test, Trace, Protect is unprecedented. We have significantly increased testing capacity in recent weeks with current laboratory capacity of over 9000 tests a day, and we expect to have capacity for 10,000 tests a day in the near future. Critical workers and the public can access home testing kits via the UK government website and we will shortly open up public access the testing sites currently being used by our critical workers across Wales. 

These are important preparations for the launch of population contact tracing on 1 June. Having appropriate testing arrangements in place will be crucial to ensuring we understand the spread of the virus.

I am very aware of the sacrifices that people have made during lockdown. I recognise that we will continue to ask people to play a significant role in controlling the spread of the disease, by self-isolating with their households when they have symptoms and getting themselves tested. This system will only work if people willingly play their part and continue to protect others. Testing is a key part to this national effort, as it will allow people who are symptomatic, but not positive, to come out of self-isolation as soon as possible.

In recognising the potential scale of contact tracing, and the contribution it will need from each and every one of us, we will implement contact tracing on a phased basis developing and learning as we go.

We have been running pilots in Hywel Dda, Powys, Betsi Cadwaladr and Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board areas since 18 May. Each pilot has been designed and delivered by local authorities working in partnerships with health boards. This has been a useful opportunity to test systems and processes in different parts of Wales.  We will implement learning from the experience in each pilot.

From 1 June, we will implement population contact tracing on receipt of a positive test result. Given the nature of coronavirus symptoms, the vast majority of people who think they are symptomatic and seek a test return a negative result. At present on average only 12% of tests are returning a positive result. Consequently contact tracing initiated by contact with a symptomatic individual (i.e. someone who has sought a test) could result in many people being asked to isolate when there is no positive case.

The consensus view of our Technical Advisory Cell (TAC) is that the case definition used to identify possible COVID-19 is important as if it is too specific it will miss cases, and if it is too sensitive it may produce an unmanageable number of potential cases which may erode public confidence. The recent addition of anosmia to potential symptoms may have increased the sensitivity of the case definition. We will consider the impact of this change in case definition carefully as we move forward.

The people of Wales are our greatest asset in the fight against COVID-19, we must retain their support and their trust. We need people to play their part and follow the advice to isolate when asked. We will need to develop an approach to contact tracing which maintains the continued and widespread public support and adherence to public health messages.

It remains the case that anyone who is symptomatic must self-isolate along with their immediate household.

I will continue to keep members updated and will be happy to answer questions in my next oral statement after recess.