The British Government’s approach to coronavirus testing has been labelled a “shambles” as it emerged that just 1,500 contact tracers out of a promised 18,000 had been appointed by the start of the week.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said that, while “about 15,000” applications have been received, only 1,500 people have currently been hired for the programme which is seen as key to allowing the UK to lift the most stringent lockdown measures.

Westminster Ministers hope contact tracing will reduce transmission by identifying and alerting people who may have been exposed to the virus, so that they can protect themselves and others around them by self-isolating.

But as the British Government’s mid-May deadline for the recruitment of 18,000 contact tracers passed, shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves called the approach so far “a shambles”.

Mr Lewis also defended guidance given to care homes in early March which said it was “very unlikely” residents would become infected with coronavirus.

He said that at the time there were “very, very low levels of death and spread of the virus”.

However, the UK’s Office for National Statistics figures show five care home residents had died with Covid-19 by the time the Government advice was withdrawn on March 13.

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