The British government said Wednesday it will launch its coronavirus "test and trace" service across England on Thursday, a key pillar in its strategy to ease a nationwide lockdown introduced in late March.
The new service will allow anyone with virus symptoms to be tested, and those who have been in close contact with someone showing positive results to be traced and told to isolate for 14 days, even if they have no symptoms. The government has hired 25,000 dedicated staff and aims to be able to trace the contacts of 10,000 people a day, which it said could be scaled up if needed.
It has also been ramping up the country's testing capability to 200,000 tests a day, through the establishment of 50 drive-through sites, more than 100 mobile testing units and three mega laboratories.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement that the new testing and tracing service "will be vital to stopping the spread of the virus".
"As we move to the next stage of our fight against coronavirus, we will be able to replace national lockdowns with individual isolation and, if necessary, local action where there are outbreaks," he said.
"This new system will help us keep this virus under control while carefully and safely lifting the lockdown nationally."
Europe's highest toll
Britain has Europe's highest death toll from the pandemic, with more than 46,000 fatalities attributed to the virus by mid-May, according to official statistics.
The government, whose tally only includes deaths confirmed by a positive test and has counted 37,460 fatalities, has faced sustained criticism over its handling of the crisis.
Under pressure to chart a path out of the lockdown instituted on March 23, Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed last week to have the 25,000 virus tracing staff recruited by the end of May and that the system would be "world-beating".
It was originally planned to operate alongside a smartphone tracing app developed by the National Health Service (NHS), but that is still undergoing testing.
The app is now due to be launched "in the coming weeks", the health ministry said, following a "successful" rollout on the Isle of Wight off the southern English coast in recent weeks.
Until then, tracers contacting people will ask them to share information about their recent interactions to identify those they have been in close contact with.
New guidance means those who have been in close contact with someone who tests positive must isolate for 14 days, even if they have no symptoms, to avoid unknowingly spreading the virus.
While the system will go live in England on Thursday, the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will determine their own pace of moving out of lockdown, and whether to adopt or amend England's approach.
Johnson eased some aspects of the social distancing regime in England earlier this month, but leaders in the other UK nations opted to keep the stringent stay-at-home rules in place.