THE mobile phone app, which the UK Government plans to form a key part of its track and trace programme to prevent a second wave of the coronavirus, will not be fully ready for several weeks, it has emerged.

As the row over if and when schools should return south of the Border, Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, was asked if the app would be in place by June 1, when UK ministers hope schools will begin to return at the earliest.

He replied: "I'm hoping we will see the tracing system start to work by that time. It won't necessarily be as widespread and as full-blown as we would like; that would develop over the next several weeks, over the next month or so.

"It's a combination of that app and of the track-and-trace volunteers who are being trained as we speak.”

Mr Buckland went on: "This is still very much work in progress but we have been ambitious about it and rightly so and there's a sense of urgency about the need to get this system going. The signs are good but there's more work to be done clearly."

He added: "The app is still being piloted and that's only part of the process; it's the recruitment of volunteers that is also a really important way of doing this. We have 21,000 recruited already, that's over the 18,000 target we set.

"I am confident over the next few weeks we will see the system develop. I'm not going to claim it's going to be a fully developed system in terms of its range over the next week or so but I'm confident that will develop quickly."

Last week, Matt Hancock, the UK Government’s Health Secretary, said the app would be “rolling out in mid-May” south of the Border. But fears have been raised about security and privacy of data on the app, which is being piloted on the Isle of Wight.

The issue is also feeding into the schools return row as some authorities and parents are fearful about children’s safety; some believe the track and trace system should be fully functional first before any schools are reopened again to most pupils.

At yesterday’s Downing St press briefing, Professor Angela Maclean, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Adviser, stressed how “changes to the lockdown need a highly effective track and trace system to be in place”.

But Government sources have in recent days been playing down the significance of the app with one insider describing it as a “digital supplement” to the contact tracing by the army of volunteers, a third of whom are doctors and nurses. “There’s been a bit too much focus on the app,” suggested the source.

In Scotland, a contact tracing system is to be trialled from next week in three health boards: NHS Fife, Lanarkshire and Highland.

The Scottish Government has chosen a system of alerting people by a telephone call rather than the mobile phone app being trialled south of the Border but it has not ruled out adopting such technology in the future.

In other developments –

*Mr Buckland launched a thinly-veiled attack on his Cabinet colleague Therese Coffey, who yesterday courted controversy when she suggested that any mistakes the Government might have made in the early days of the pandemic were due to “wrong” scientific advice. The Justice Secretary insisted: “We should all be...working together. Pointing fingers and blaming people is extremely unproductive.”

*The Secretary of State admitted the Government at the start of the pandemic had chosen to prioritise the protection of the NHS ahead of care homes. Asked if the NHS had been put "first and foremost" at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, he replied: "That's right and that was absolutely essential.” In response, Liz Kendall for Labour said: “This is the clearest admission yet that ministers did not give care homes the protection they needed at the start of this pandemic. Social care and the NHS are both equally important in the fight against this virus and are inextricably linked. One cannot be prioritised above the other.”