England’s lockdown restrictions should not be eased further until the government’s contact tracing system is “robust and effective”, a World Health Organisation (WHO) official has said.
WHO’s regional European director Hans Kluge said the UK remains in a “very active phase of the pandemic” and should be cautious in lifting any restrictions.
“Contact tracing is key especially as the UK starts to relax the social and physical distancing measures,” he told The Guardian.
“There has to be a robust track-and-trace system in place of operation.”
It comes after two members of the government’s scientific advisory council (SAGE) told Sky News last month the lockdown should not be eased until the test and trace system was a proven success.
In its first week of operation, the system had managed to identify nearly 32,000 people who came into close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.
But one third of people who tested positive could not be reached by the system or refused to hand over their contacts.
Baroness Harding, the head of the test and trace programme, admitted it was not yet at the “gold standard” and would improve over the summer.
Mr Kluge said the tracking of nearly 32,000 contacts was encouraging, but that Downing Street would need to be convinced it could “aggressively” track infections if it were to reopen the economy.
Countries which imposed early lockdowns had managed to record fewer deaths, the WHO official said, but would now be judged on how they ease their restrictions.
“We know that early lockdowns saved lives and bought some time for the health system to be ready,” he said.
“But I would rather than instead of looking to the past, jump to the future and say that the question of lifting the lockdown is as important as going to the lockdown.
“The key words here are to do it gradually. Do it carefully.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure from Tory backbenchers and business leaders to lift restrictions further, as there are fears the lockdown could lead to mass unemployment.
“We know that the situation in the UK is still being taken very seriously,” Mr Kluge said.
“But we also know that it is a balance between three factors: population health, economic and social, and the third is the wellbeing of the people.
“So whatever the country decides: be ready. It is not over.
“And whatever decision you make, please make sure it is based on public health and epidemiological observations.”
England is relaxing some restrictions on Monday, with non-essential shops reopening and shoppers encouraged to hit the high streets.
Ministers are also reviewing the two-metre distancing rule, as the prime minister said decreasing numbers of coronavirus cases has given the government “more margin for manoeuvre”.
A total of 41,698 people have died with coronavirus in the UK, with a further 36 deaths announced on Sunday.