I beg to move,
That this House
notes the consistently high performance of local contact tracing systems when compared with the centralised system established by the Government;
notes the wealth of evidence that the considerable sums of public money spent so far on the national system would deliver better public health outcomes if devolved to local authorities and public health experts;
and calls on the Government to extend the additional funding for contact tracing available in Tier 3 areas to all parts of the country and ensure that councils and local public health teams receive the resources and powers they require.
This Government are obsessed with a failed model of outsourcing. It is failing to reach people who come into contact with someone with the virus, it is not getting information to local councils who need to act on it, and it is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money that could be spent on a local response using local expertise. It is not too late for the Government to change course, and I urge them to do so today.
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made the case for a short, sharp circuit break of restrictions lasting two to three weeks to firmly apply the brakes on the rising infection numbers that we are seeing. A crucial aim of the circuit break is to drive down infections, but there is another purpose as well: it would buy the Government some crucial time to fix the failures in contact tracing.
The current model of contact tracing is broken and it will get worse, not better, while corporations such as Serco are allowed in the driving seat rather than local public health teams. We might ask: how bad is the Government’s approach to contact tracing?
One director of public health said:
“It needs someone with the courage to say” it “isn’t working”, and it was described as a
“catastrophe…the very worst system I’ve…seen”.
Well, we do have the courage to say that it is not working and I urge the Government to have that courage, too.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight Serco. Does she agree that another problem with test and trace is the number of consultants being employed, with more than a thousand from one firm alone—Deloitte—that charges several thousand pounds a day for its senior consultants? Should we not be told how much it is costing and what these people are doing?
My hon. Friend makes his point well. He has been a staunch advocate of transparency and value for money in the delivery of public services. The Government’s own Minister in the Cabinet Office in the other place has made those points as well, saying that the Government are spending too much money on consultants when that work could be done in-house with better value for taxpayers. I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s comments.
The minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies meeting from three weeks ago on
“relatively low levels of engagement with the system…coupled with testing delays…is having a marginal impact on transmission”.
All that money spent, yet this key part of the Government’s system to keep us safe is only having a marginal impact on transmission.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that this is a unique situation? This is one of the worst crises that this country has ever faced, and I invite her to assist the Government, rather than constantly opposing every measure that the Government are taking in what is an extremely challenging situation.
That is exactly why I am urging the Government to use the local expertise we have in all our local authorities around the country. We should not reinvent the wheel, but use that local expertise, rather than wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
The Prime Minister promised a world-beating test and trace system, yet we have one that is barely functioning. We have a system that is now so broken that SAGE is saying it is making next to no difference. We are all paying the price for these terrible mistakes. The truth is that as soon as the Government looked to a privatised solution, a political choice was made about how to respond to a public health crisis.
Serco is not integrated into the fabric of any of our communities. Ministers could have spoken to the Local Government Association. They could have spoken to the Association of Directors of Public Health. Instead, they chose to speak to Serco. There is a cosiness between the Conservative Government and these outsourcing companies, despite their failures to deliver.
Let us look at Serco’s record. Last year, Serco was fined £23 million as part of a settlement with the Serious Fraud Office over electronic tagging contracts. In December, two former senior executives at Serco were charged for that offence. In 2018, Serco was fined £2.8 million after it was revealed that it was providing asylum seekers with squalid, unsafe slum housing.
One would think that whenever Serco bids for a contract, sirens would be going off all over Whitehall, except that Serco did not bid for the contact tracing contract. It was handed it on a plate, with no competition, no rigour and no transparency. Ministers may claim that it is a coincidence that hundreds of millions of pounds of public contracts have been awarded to companies with clear links to the Conservative party, including Serco. That would be a heck of a coincidence, wouldn’t it?
I am glad to see the old tendency is back in the Opposition of private bad, public good. With the hon. Lady’s proposal around local authorities wanting to do more on test and trace, presumably they would not be doing it for free. They would have to be paid, and it would cost a lot of money. Presumably she has costed that. Will she just put on the record for the House at what price she has costed that?
Let us be clear: there are places that are doing this—for example, Wales, to which I shall come later—and the difference between what we see with Serco and what we see when it is done in-house is that with the latter more people are being traced, which means more people are going into self-isolation and a slower spread of the virus. That protects all our lives and means that our economy can get back on track. The Government are the ones who are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a system that is failing—a system that is letting us down.
Outsourced contact tracing is part of £11 billion of public procurement in this pandemic that has not gone out to competitive tender. The Government do not even know whether they are getting value for money because they do not even bother to test it in the marketplace or against what local authorities can deliver. For the outsourcing companies this is a gold rush. I have called for the National Audit Office to investigate, and I look forward to its findings later this year. I am sure that all Members will look forward to the findings from that investigation so that they can check for themselves that they are getting the value for money that they seem to believe they are getting.
One issue that I hope the National Audit Office addresses is the murky subcontracting of the Government’s contractors. My hon. Friend Helen Hayes asked the Government how many companies Serco has subcontracted its work on contact tracing to; the answer was 29 companies other than Serco. The amount subcontracted to other firms represents 80% of staffing. Who are these businesses? The Government have refused to say—because Serco decided that it was too commercially sensitive. We now have a Government that outsource even decisions to private outsourcing companies. The situation is frankly ludicrous.
It has taken investigative journalists, whistleblowers and the Good Law Project to start to piece together the jigsaw. Why the shyness? Presumably because if the Government revealed what was going on, it would not stand up to public scrutiny. One business to which Serco has subcontracted work is Concentrix, which was previously involved in scandals relating to tax credits.
In September, it was reported that another Serco subcontractor, Intelling, was paying bonuses of £500 to staff despite poor contact rates. One contact tracer employed by Intelling was reported to have said:
“I couldn’t believe it when I got my bonus. It’s an absolute disgrace…I’m getting paid and now given a bonus for doing nothing…I really want to help and be involved and make calls and be useful. But I’m not being given anything to do. The system is on its knees.”
This evidence is devastating because it shows that people who should have been contacted are not being contacted and that, far from what Steve Brine said, the Government are handing out money to companies without getting the value for money that we should all be demanding.
I challenge the Minister today to name all Serco’s subcontractors and to publish details on how much they have been paid and for what. I will give way to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jo Churchill, if she would like to tell the House that information. This is revealing: either they do not know, they do not care, or they will not say. I fear that the more we know about what is happening under the bonnet in contact tracing, the worse it gets.
I fear that the hon. Lady may have inadvertently misled the House earlier. She told the House that the Government did not speak to local government authorities throughout the country, but on
Local councils are desperate to take on the responsibilities from Serco. They are begging the Government: “Hand over the resources and the responsibilities, because we can do it better than you.” I will come later to the issues relating to what the Government are doing with tier 3 compared with the other tiers.
My hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour is making an excellent speech. If local authorities undertake similar procurement, they have to utilise best value and have a social value framework. If they conducted procurement as the Government have, the Government would bring in commissioners. This is an absolute scandal.
I could not agree more. My hon. Friend will know that in Leeds, which we both have the privilege of representing, with the expertise we have on the ground, our local authority and director of public health could be doing a much better job than Serco is doing. Indeed, when we have had local outbreaks in Leeds, it has been the local authority going out and knocking on doors to ensure that people know what is going on—something that Serco cannot or does not do.
Andrew Bowie said that £300 million had been given to local authorities to do tracking and tracing. My recollection is that it was not given for that purpose. It was given to local authorities to help them develop outbreak control plans and set up outbreak control committees. There has never been any general amount of money given to local authorities to do tracking and tracing. That has been a demand, but it has not been responded to by the Government.
I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, who is better informed than most in the House.
In the last Parliament, I had the honour of chairing the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and it was a privilege to see the work of so many businesses, which are the backbone of our economy. I also chaired the inquiry into the collapse of Carillion—a house of cards built through outsourced contracts from Government. When I see the endless contracts and the enormous sums of money handed over today to outsourcing companies, I cannot help but conclude that the Government have learnt none of the lessons from that collapse and that failure. It makes me really angry that, despite all the work done and all the evidence presented, the same thing is happening again.
There are clear alternatives, and there always were. The World Health Organisation issued clear guidance for contact tracing, which states:
“Critical elements of the implementation of contact tracing are community engagement and public support”.
That should have been the model for England, so why was it not? We do not need to travel halfway round the world for a successful alternative. We can look to Wales—a model where contact tracing is devolved to local communities. In the most recent figures for Wales, of the 2,190 positive cases that were eligible for follow-up, 91% were reached and asked to provide details of their recent contacts. Of the 10,516 contacts, 83% were successfully contacted. That is in stark contrast with the Government’s Serco model, in which just 69% of contacts were reached—a figure that is getting worse week in, week out.
Perhaps if the Welsh Government were a private outsourcing consultancy, the Government would have paid them a small fortune to take over the system in England. Instead, the Government turned to outside consultants, paid £563,000 of public money this summer for producing a report on test and trace—a report that we have all paid for, but none of us has seen. The Government could have learned valuable lessons for free. They could have gone to Mark Drakeford rather than to McKinsey.
Knowing all this, my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth and I wrote to the Health Secretary in August, urging him not to renew Serco’s contract and to put public health teams in charge. However, Serco’s contract was not terminated—it was extended. Out of necessity, with Serco tracing failing, many councils have had to create their own tracing systems with a fraction of the money. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government knows that this is a problem. On Sunday, he said that local councils are
“bound to be better than Whitehall or national contact tracers.”
That begs the question, why not give those resources, powers and responsibilities to local government if even the Secretary of State realises that they would do a better job and deliver better value for money? Instead, the Government have wasted over half a year on a system that is failing, with mounting evidence of that growing by the day.
It is quite simple. As Liz Robin, director of public health in Peterborough, has pointed out, people were always more likely to answer a call from a local phone number, and unlike national contact tracers, local tracers are able to knock on doors and visit people if they are not responding. Peterborough has managed to contact between 80% and 90% of the cases that the national tracers were not able to. As the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said:
“Council leaders in many regions have been relying on volunteers but this cannot continue. It can’t be done on the cheap—councils have to be given more resources to employ expanded, trained teams.”
The resources need to be shifted from Serco to our local authorities.
The Minister will argue, I am sure, that local and national teams are working perfectly well together, but if she were to show some humility and some honesty, she would admit that it is clear that local services are delivering better. In fact, the national system is hugely flawed, in that it is totally disconnected from the communities while hoovering up most of the resource. This week the Government said they would provide funding to councils for contact tracing in areas with a tier-3 alert level, but what about tiers 1 and 2 to stop them ending up in tier 3? It is a bit like a fire brigade handing out smoke alarms to a family whose house is already ablaze. They needed that support some time ago. If they had had it, they might not have ended up in this situation.
I will make some progress and conclude to give others time to speak.
Ten years of austerity, fragmentation and privatisation have left our country less resilient to face a pandemic like this. Public health budgets have been slashed by cuts from central Government. Sustained new investment is needed to rebuild our public services during this crisis and beyond. The Government have squandered enormous sums of money on a centrally dictated outsourcing model, and Ministers should hang their heads in shame because it has failed.
The consequence of this failure means we are not getting the virus under control after months of sacrifice by the British people, so my message today is simple: sack Serco and give those resources to local councils, save lives, protect livelihoods and learn these lessons before it is too late.
Before I call the Minister to respond, I give notice that we will start with a time limit of five minutes for Back-Bench speeches, and it is likely to be reduced quite soon.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “when” to end and insert
“working in conjunction with NHS Test and Trace;
welcomes the huge expansion of testing to a capacity of over 340,000 tests a day;
applauds the efforts of all involved in testing and contact tracing both at a national and local level;
recognises that 650,000 people have now been asked to isolate thanks to the work of NHS Test and Trace, and supports the Government’s efforts to expand testing and tracing yet further.”.
I agree with the final sentence of Rachel Reeves that this is about protecting people. The entire focus of the Government from day one has been on driving a system that can protect people. It is not a zero-sum game, and it is not an either/or.
This pandemic is the most unprecedented public health emergency we have faced in a generation. We knew that our response would require a phenomenal national effort and that we would need to work closely with others. Local authorities and directors of public health have played an enormous part thus far, including in the delivery of test and trace. They have worked exceptionally hard to prepare and support their communities throughout the coronavirus outbreak, protecting the most vulnerable and saving lives.
I take this opportunity to say thank you to all the public health teams and local authority staff for their hard work thus far, and I know I speak for everyone in this place, irrespective of where we sit, and beyond when I say how grateful we are that they have been there.
Local partnerships have been at the heart of both covid and of the NHS Test and Trace response. As this House knows, Test and Trace was stood up at incredible speed and has developed at scale and pace. As would be expected, the Government responded at pace.
The hon. Lady mentioned Serco on more than one occasion but, as she well knows, having reacted to the changing situation at pace, Serco and Sitel went through a full tendering process to became one of the suppliers to the Government, and they can be drawn down at short notice. They gained their place through fair and open competition via an OJEU procurement process. Value for money and capability are part of those assessment criteria.
The Minister mentioned the private sector. Three weeks ago in named day questions, I asked her Department for details of the private consultants working at the Joint Biosecurity Centre, but she still has not answered, even though some of the information has been published in the press since. What have they got to hide about the employment of consultants and their cost? Will she now answer those questions and publish that information?
As the hon. Gentleman can imagine, in the current circumstances the Department has a vast amount of correspondence. I will chase his inquiry personally when I return.
As I said at the start, it is not a case of either/or, as the Opposition motion makes out. The pandemic requires us all to work towards that common goal of beating the virus. Contact tracing is an excellent example of partnership in action. We have Public Health England’s epidemiology expertise to ensure that the operationalisation of the tracing model is built on a strong scientific base. Through NHS Test and Trace and its partner organisations, we can do it at scale. The national framework enables us to reach tens of thousands of people a day. It would not have been possible to do that on the existing infrastructure without placing an unbearable burden and strain on the system. To support this, we have local health teams who know their local areas and can provide expert management locally. Probably one of the finest examples of that was the response in Leicester, where local teams responded phenomenally to the challenge presented to them earlier in the summer, with the national oversight identifying that there was a problem and then the local response. We know we need people on the ground locally who can reach the most vulnerable and those who are disengaged from local services.
The local health protection teams form the first tier of the NHS Test and Trace contact tracing service, consisting of public health specialists. NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England work with local government colleagues, including the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, the Local Government Association and UK chief environmental health officers, on part of this programme. It is, therefore, simply untrue that contact tracing does not include those experts front and centre, helping us deliver.
I very much welcome the plan in the Liverpool city region, where the local authorities have been given £8 per head to take over responsibility for tracking and tracing. It recognises the most serious problem in the country, the Liverpool city region, and the funds have been given to local authorities. If that is the case, why does the scheme not extend to at least tier 2 regions, such as Sheffield, so we can avoid becoming a tier 3 region in due course?
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say we have provided £8 per head, giving Liverpool some £14 million to assist with its local public health attack on the virus and to help drive down the rates. Tier 3 local authorities get that help. The Government will work with local areas to accelerate local roll-out and to allow conversations to be ongoing, with additional money to protect vital services. Further details, I am sure, will come from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in time.
As I said, it is untrue that public health experts are not there front and centre. There are about 1,000 tier 1 contact tracers working within the core contact tracing system in health protection teams and field services across the country. More local recruitment is under way. We have more than doubled the size of local health protection teams since the pandemic began. The next layer of the test and trace contact tracing services is NHS clinicians, who signed up to contact people who have tested positive and talk them through the process to find out where individuals have been and who they may have been in contact with. Those clinicians do the most phenomenal job every day, stepping forward with their wealth of expertise to assist.
Today’s motion refers to local contact tracing and that has, in fact, been getting rolled out to local authorities across the country since August of this year. Has it always gone seamlessly? Has it always been perfect? I am always the first at this Dispatch Box to say that nothing ever does, much as we may want it to. Nothing ever does. We put the best efforts into making sure that individuals at a local level are supported in this difficult work every day.
The Minister is right to say that we want everything to go well, but what we can do is learn the lessons. In my constituency in Brent, people were trying to get access to the NHS database—the Contract Tracing and Advisory Service—and they were met with just “No, no, no” so many times. Will the Minister tell the House the average wait time for local authorities to get access to CTAS? That is vital if they are going to do local test and trace.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I will be coming on to access. As she rightly points out, it is hugely important that local and national systems are in lockstep so we get a better picture of the virus and how it is affecting our local communities.
I will push on a little and then I will give way to my hon. Friend.
Today’s motion talks about local contact tracing, which has been rolled out since August and is something that NHS Test and Trace is actively driving forward in its commitment to local systems. Since August, NHS Test and Trace has provided local authorities with dedicated teams of contact tracers working alongside local public health officials to assist and give a more specialist service. Local public health officials can access and use the data shared by the NHS on a daily basis. Together we can increase the number of people contacted. We have more than 95 lower-tier local authorities across the country that have gone live with local tracing partnerships. There are more going live in the coming weeks, and any local authority that wants to be involved can be. The national programme is doing an unbelievable job of helping people who might unknowingly be putting their loved ones at risk, but so is the local programme.
In England we have reached more than 650,000 people who have tested positive and their contacts and advised them to self-isolate. Every person who tests positive is contacted by NHS Test and Trace, which consistently reaches more than 80% of contacts when details are given. Because everybody, whether national or local, is locked on to the same system—this is vital—we can see how the virus is spreading. It gives us important knowledge. All the data that we publish on NHS Test and Trace include data on local performance. At this point, I recommend to everyone the coronavirus dashboard, which has been improved and updated, and gone live only this morning. It gives fantastic information about what is happening locally. As local testing partnerships are rolled out, we expect to see performance improving further.
As my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves set out, the system is not working. The statistics speak for themselves and, while the system in Wales is delivering, it is not in England. Will the Minister say why the private companies do not just hand the test and trace system over to local directors of public health? Are there any financial penalties or anything in their contracts that preclude them from doing so?
We are better together. It is as simple as that. It is about a national programme. Let us imagine that the national programme is the spine and the local authorities are the ribs that wrap around us. The combination of the rigid spine and those solid ribs protects the organs, and this is what test and trace will do. We need both elements of the system.
Clearly, this spine is very important, and one of the key elements is the app, which 17 million people have downloaded—that is a great success. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is in stark contrast to other systems, such as the StopCovid app in France, which has been an abject failure, as only 2.6 million people downloaded it? When we compare that with the figure of 17 million people in the UK, we see that we are getting it right compared with other countries.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and highlighting that 17 million individuals have downloaded the app. I am sure many in this House are using it frequently, because that helps us to test and trace. He also raises the point about talking to other countries, which we do in order to learn. When we have spoken to other countries, they, too, have reinforced the fact that this is not only about local systems and it is important to have an overarching national system and local systems as well.
As the Secretary of State said to the House yesterday:
“Local action has proved to be one of our most important lines of defence.”—[Official Report,
Beating this virus is about a series of building blocks. Every day, week in, week out, we are in constant dialogue with local areas to make sure there is support on the ground for extra measures and that the local perspective is combined with the wealth of data we now have, and share, on the spread of this virus. The next evolution of this, thanks in large part to the wealth of data and the insight of Test and Trace, which we did not have at the early stage of the pandemic, is introducing the three covid alert levels that the House voted to approve last night, demonstrating our commitment to respond on a much more targeted and local basis, working closely with community leaders and communities.
Over the past few months, we have built a massive national infrastructure for testing. That work has involved local authorities identifying and setting up testing sites that work for their local areas, and deploying mobile testing where it is most needed. I wish to place on record my thanks to the Army, as we know that its deployment and mobility around the country has given us another tool in the toolbox in order to be able to fight. It is with great thanks to the local authorities that we now have more than 500 testing sites; many more are local walk-in sites to make it easier and quicker for people living in urban areas. The median distance travelled in person to a test is just 3.7 miles.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point, as I wish to ask her to investigate something for me. In Reading, we have been waiting for some time for a new testing centre, and this is in a university town that is currently in the bottom tier but which could rapidly progress to the second tier or even the top tier if the spread is not arrested now. Students have been told that they will have to travel only 1.5 miles to the nearest testing centre, but in fact the nearest testing centre is in Newbury, which is more than 15 miles away. I know of residents of Reading who have had to go as far away as the Welsh valleys and Tewkesbury to get a test. Will she now investigate the need for speeding up the provision of a testing centre at the University of Reading?
I believe that the Minister for Universities answered an urgent question in this House last week, and I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman refers the challenges he has on the university to her, she would be more than happy to work with him. I just refer him back to the fact that we are working with all local authorities.
While talking about testing, I would like to take the opportunity to remind the House about the scale of testing. It was 2,000 people a day when the pandemic began in March, and when NHS Test and Trace began our capacity was over 128,000. The capacity is now over 340,000. We have processed over 25 million tests, and one in eight people in England have been tested for the virus. I am really keen that we understand the size of this challenge. We have built the largest diagnostic network in British history, including five major labs, 96 NHS labs and Public Health England labs, and we are expanding further. We have pilots going with some of our greatest universities. We are working with hospitals, with the addition of new Lighthouse laboratories in Charnwood, Newcastle and Bracknell, as well as new partnerships only last week with Birmingham University and Health Service Laboratories in London, so we are expanding.
Right at the start of NHS Test and Trace, we worked with all 152 local authorities to help them develop their local outbreak plans. We have ensured access to data, and when it was highlighted that there was a need for better data flow, we worked on it to provide them with additional support to respond to outbreaks, such as with enhanced testing. We have also published the covid-19 contain framework—the blueprint for how Test and Trace is working in partnership with local authorities, the NHS, local businesses, community partners and the wider public so that we can target outbreaks. We introduced new regulations to give local authorities additional powers when they ask for them to stop the transmission of the virus, giving them the ability to restrict local public gatherings and events, and the power to close local business premises and outdoor spaces if it is deemed necessary. This includes more support for local test and trace, more funding for local enforcement and the offer of the armed services in areas of very high alert.
I feel sorry for the Minister and her colleagues now that constructive opposition has ended, but let me ask her about the local tracing partnerships she mentioned. She will remember the thousands of volunteers who signed up to help during this pandemic. Have Ministers given any thought to using that army of volunteers for the local tracing partnerships?
I thank my hon. Friend. Those local volunteers were in some cases employed in other jobs and have returned to those jobs, but where they have indicated they are available, obviously they have been used.
No. I am just coming to a conclusion, and I did give way to the hon. Gentleman.
In a few short months, we have made huge strides forward to tackle this deadly virus. It has been a collective commitment. It is not about us or them; it is about all of us—one team, working day and night together in the different areas, and using expertise to bring the virus under control. We will keep working side by side with our important local partners in the months ahead.
Some quotes from directors of public health have been bandied about, and the hon. Member for Leeds West said they supported the motion. I would merely like to say that the Association of Directors of Public Health
“supports the need to implement, at scale, a contact tracing programme. No single organisation or agency, whether national or local, can design and oversee this operation alone. The success of contact tracing will depend on a truly integrated approach between national and local government and a range of other partners across the UK.”
It is often said that the principal duty of Government is to keep their citizens safe and secure. That applies not just to law and order. If my recollection of policing history is correct, the City of Glasgow police, formed before Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan police, had public health duties, not just the duty to address violence and crime. Then, of course, the scourge was cholera, but it remains true today not just in the ethos of Police Scotland: Governments and agencies have a public health duty and that is at the core of keeping citizens safe and secure.
It follows on from that that actions and ideology are used and need to be scrutinised and investigated. It is the duty of the Administration to deliver, but it is the duty of the Opposition to challenge. At the heart of this debate and, indeed, at the root of the subject under discussion lies the charge that the Government have supplanted good governance with ideology and that the choices they have made were based not on best practice, let alone best value, but on ideology; on how they fitted in with their free market ideology and, worse still, how they benefited their friends and cronies; it was not just about the underlying ethos regarding centralised or local systems.
Why are we having this debate? It is because there has been, and is, clear policy failure. Let us remember that, at the outset of the pandemic, our never knowingly modest Prime Minister boasted that we would have a world-beating test and trace system. Why? Because, then and now, test, trace and isolate is key to addressing this pandemic, as it is to addressing other such viruses. Previous pandemics show that that was fundamental. Indeed, all the evidence from abroad, where many, if not most, countries are doing significantly better, shows that it remains fundamental. But what was bragged about by the Prime Minister is far from the reality and experience of those on the ground.
Monday’s minutes from SAGE, released shortly after the chuntering broadcast by the Prime Minister, when, once again, soundbite rose over substance, were not just critical, but fundamentally caustic. They disclosed that the scientists—indeed the scientists behind the science that the Prime Minister claims to be following—had neither faith in the strategy nor faith in the direction being taken. The current situation on test and trace, let us remember, is critical and is, in the Prime Minister’s words, meant to be world beating. Importantly, some insurers may argue with those seeking to claim some recompense that this is an act of God that negates any pay-out for what they have been paying in over months and years, but this strategy most certainly is man-made and the fingerprints of the Prime Minister are all over it. It is a deliberate policy choice that has been made and it is a consequential failure that is rooted in those ideological choices, for there were, and are, other options, as Rachel Reeves and others have commented on. It was not forced on the Government by events; it was chosen by them through dogma, as they have disclosed in other policy positions throughout their tenure. They could, had they wished, have gone with the experienced practitioners who were tried and tested and who had done this before, but they rejected them and accordingly that failure is their policy—their political choice, on the basis, sadly, of their political prejudice.
Let us look at the evidence. In Scotland and Wales, test and trace is built on the public health experts who are in place. They are the local officials on the ground who have been tested over previous pandemics such as flu. We have, as others have mentioned, a 90% success rate. In England, through Serco, it is 61%. That gap threatens lives. It cannot be explained away by the greater population of England, or indeed by the greater urbanisation or density of England. Why is that? If we look at pillar 1 in England, which is being delivered by Public Health England and by public health officials, there is a success rate of 95%, which exceeds that of Scotland and Wales. Therefore, it is not England per se, but the system that England is using for pillar 2 that is failing. That is clear, as the public health-based systems in Scotland, Wales and England are delivering, and it is the privatised Serco-based model in England that is failing.
That brings me to the next subject: speed. Speed is an issue in this debate. It is an aspect of health actions and of the delivery of policy choices. Speed is essential for infection control. It is also vital to changes in normal Government procurement rules, yet it seems that what should be a mitigatory factor for changes to the usual competitive tendering rules is, in fact, a condemnatory matter for Government policy choices based on ideology.
Speed is vital in health actions with regard to this virus. That is clear in all pandemic control, but especially for covid. Why is that? Because people can be infectious two or three days before they are aware of the symptoms. Hence test, trace and isolate is fundamental, or, as we are sadly seeing, the R number simply increases exponentially. Speed is also acknowledged in competitive tendering rules. Latitude is understandably given where urgency is required in cases of emergency, such as we face at the moment, but value for money is still to be sought even if the best-value rules are overridden. However, as with the need for safety and security in policy that I have detailed, there also needs to be probity in office and in the actions of Government.
Let us look at what has happened. The Government are charged with failing to deliver an accurate or speedy response, as the 61% showing testifies to. The reality is that they did not deliver a speedy response to the pandemic, but they delivered an entirely inadequate testing system based on a procurement system that has used speed as an excuse, if not cover, for making ideological choices. If truth be told, they have failed to secure their citizens, but they have certainly satisfied their cronies. Transparency and clarity there must be, but probity and competence are also required.
Let us consider the facts, because that is where I believe the Government are found wanting. Pillar 1 in England, as in Scotland and Wales, has delivered. Why is that? Because it is built on Public Health England, and on local public health agencies in Scotland and Wales—the same people who have dealt with viruses in the past; those who have dealt with meningitis outbreaks and norovirus, and indeed, in past generations, the cholera that I mentioned. In public health emergencies, they come to the fore; they are trained for them, they prepare for them and they are experienced in them.
Of course, that does not preclude the private sector or deny the need for recruitment of additional staff. That is self-evident when we face a crisis on this scale. But all that should be done under the guidance and the direction of those skilled and experienced staff who are trained in public health, who know what they are doing and—this is core to the motion—know the area that they are serving.
However, ideology has overridden that. The most damning evidence is from the independent adviser to the independent SAGE, Sir David King, who said that the Government claim to be following the science but have ignored the scientists. Instead of those tried-and-tested experts and others—new and old, experienced and not, but working with and to them—we got an army of consultants. Not medical consultants, who would have been welcomed by the population at large, but management consultants and consultancy firms who are neither qualified nor—again, this is fundamental to the motion—local, such as Sodexo, Serco and Deloitte.
We got 50 Deloitte testing centres, which then subcontracted to Serco, Sodexo, Mitie, G4S, Boots, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all to carry out their mandate and, indeed, to staff and resource them. What should have been a local response delivered by public health officials has become a centralised service, divvied up and shared out among corporate pals—given to their pals; their family and friends, without going into other aspects; their corporate friends, and indeed big business donors. Who cares what their experience is in public health as long as they are on side politically? Why let public health get in the way of old pals’ needs?
It gets worse. On
Neither public health nor public procurement is being satisfied with the current policy. Daniel Bruce of Transparency International warned, regarding the circumventing of competitive tendering proposals, about a blank cheque, but it is not a blank cheque for public health officials—it is a blank cheque for consultancy profits. It is not a de minimis amount, either, for we know that the magic money tree has been found and is being well and truly plundered. Although much is welcome, this most certainly is not. There have been 117 contracts worth £1.7 billion, 115 of those under fast-track rules dispensing with normal competitive tendering requirements, and two contracts of £200 million administered by Whitehall Departments. We even have contracts going to firms with Tory MPs as paid consultants. I am implying nothing, but when less scrutiny is required, more care should certainly be taken by those in office. This plethora of deals to family, friends and cronies does a political disservice and is as unhealthy as the virus in terms of the public good. While best value has been dispensed with, value for money is still required, not just by Daniel Bruce but by civil service rules. Fundamentally, as ever, probity and rectitude should be followed in government.
This debate is not simply about localised versus centralised. At its heart, it is a question of strategy by the Government, who have chosen, in addressing this pandemic, that it should be seen, and rather tragically has been seen, as increasing the percentage of consultants rather than the percentage of public health officials. Instead of seeing increasing largesse in public contracts going to consultants, not public health officials, we should have been seeing it going to those on the frontline who are dealing with need. Truncated procedures are needed, and they are acceptable, but the fact is that taxpayers are paying the price and citizens are bearing the cost, while, at the same time, corporate profits are being increased and public health officials undermined. It has become corporatism, with centralised cronyism, when it should be public health, localised and competent. It is, frankly, a national scandal.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate.
Effective contact tracing is going to help us to tackle this virus, and all of us here want the best possible version of that tool in the toolbox. The question is how best we do that. Despite what the Opposition might have people believe, there are no easy answers to this problem. It is easy to stand up in this place or go on TV and say, “Fix it”, but anyone with any real-world experience of organising any kind of project or undertaking that is even a fraction of the scale and size of this one understands the incredible challenges that are inevitably faced. Over recent months, the Government have built a huge testing regime capable of processing 340,000 tests a day that has tested over 7 million people in a matter of months. At the start of this epidemic, the yardstick for all this was Germany. Now that we are testing more people than Germany, France, Italy and Denmark, and many others, that yardstick has quietly disappeared.
Yes, there are challenges. Supply and demand are not uniform across the country and supply needs to be increased, but, whatever Labour Members think about the Government’s approach to testing and tracing, if they describe testing 69% as a complete failure, what does that say about the Welsh Labour Government’s programme? To be brutally honest, I am struggling to understand what exactly Labour Members are trying to say today, beyond of course, “We could have done it differently. It would all have been different and fantastic, and nothing would have gone wrong.” That is basically their position on everything to do with the coronavirus.
Let us talk about some of Labour Members’ common criticisms. They say we should not have the private sector involved, and that there is insufficient capacity. At the same time as criticising the Government for not having enough testing capacity, they are telling them that they should immediately and drastically cut out a chunk of that capacity because it does not suit their ideology. This is all based on their blinkered mentality that if the private sector does something it will automatically be bad and if the public sector does something it will automatically be good.
That brings me to the question of whether doing everything locally would have been the right approach at the outset of the programme. I simply do not accept that asking all 152 directors of public health to go off and set up their own approach at the outset would have been in any way feasible. Were they all supposed to come up with their own laboratories, their own contracts and their own apps? That just is not a credible solution in the short term. It was common sense to begin with a central programme, although even at the outset, when it was clear that something centrally driven was needed to kickstart the process, the Government recognised that local systems had a role to play. Many months before Labour was calling for it, £300 million was provided to help local authorities to develop their own test and trace programmes and, importantly, we have now 93 local authority test and trace regimes up and running.
So what is it that Labour Members are saying? Is it that we should immediately hand over everything that is being run nationally to local authorities?
Well, it is.
Many of us in this place who have had dealings with local authorities—as well as lots of our constituents and probably millions of people across the country—would agree that getting everything done by the local authority is by no means a guarantee of success. Just this morning, in news that I am sure was greeted with groans in the Labour Whips Office, it was revealed that Birmingham City Council’s local programme dropped off 25 used swab kits to homes in Selly Oak. Does that mean that local authorities are incapable of delivering? No, of course not. We have problems in the private sector, and that should not bar them from involvement, and we have problems in the public sector too.
Local authority solutions are not a magic bullet. The quality of leadership, management and organisation varies enormously among local authorities. We all know this, and the Opposition know it. At the election, so many bricks in their red wall fell because residents were fed up not just with Labour at national level but with inept, Labour-led local authorities. After decades in power, they were taking people for granted, with leaders and councillors who were not even up to the job of taking away the bins on time, let alone organising a test and trace programme. The national programme inevitably has challenges, but do Labour Members really think that each and every one of the local authorities will deliver on this flawlessly?
Local leaders are political. Sadly, time and again we see Members on the Opposition Benches putting politics first. In the past 24 hours alone, they have said that they support local lockdowns but then did not vote for local lockdowns; that national lockdowns were a disaster, but now they want a national lockdown—and they cannot even make up their minds whether they want a two-week or a three-week lockdown. And they want the country to believe that if they had been in charge, all this would have been going smoothly. That is not accurate. When it came to getting children back to school, the national Labour party was kowtowing to national union leaders and doing what they said, and we all know that the local Labour parties are just as likely to be influenced by the unions. I absolutely recognise that there is work that needs to be done, but I am afraid the idea that if we just flick a switch and give it all to local authorities everything will be fine is complete and utter nonsense.
For months, the Labour party has been calling on the Prime Minister to get a grip of the crisis, yet, characteristically for his Government, all we have seen is dither and delay, U-turn after U-turn and a failure to provide effective testing and tracing of this deadly virus. Back in February, the World Health Organisation advised nations that a key component of their pandemic response should be “test, test, test”, but despite spending over £12 billion of taxpayers’ money, this Government have failed spectacularly to deliver even a functioning test and trace system, never mind the Prime Minister’s self-avowed “world-beating” programme. Instead, they have blamed the public for wanting too many tests, misplaced records for 16,000 positive cases, and launched their app months late.
While Ministers continue to bore us ad nauseum with their soundbites about world-beating capacity, they ignore the reality that the system is broken and, in the words of SAGE, is having only “a marginal impact” on controlling the virus. They continue to hand over billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to private companies—many with Conservative party connections—trying to paper over the cracks without addressing the failures of a privatised and centralised model. Just last week, only 68% of contacts of those who had tested positive for coronavirus were reached by the Government’s central system. That is the worst weekly figure since test and trace began, while cases are among the highest. In comparison, 97.1% were reached by local protection teams, so the picture is pretty clear.
In my constituency of Slough, because of Government failures the council was compelled to set up its own tracing system to protect our local community. This came after the Department of Health and Social Care significantly curtailed the working of our local testing centre, causing absolute chaos. I have been contacted by constituents who were directed to drive hundreds of miles, or even to catch a ferry to the Isle of Wight, just to get a test; by parents unable to send their children to school after waiting an entire week for test results; and by key workers simply unable to book test appointments. One of my own staff, a key worker helping me provide support to the more than 1,400 constituents currently requiring my assistance, had to self-isolate for two weeks because one of her relatives at home was taken to hospital by ambulance with a high temperature and struggling to breathe. No test was offered, either to my colleague or her relative; instead, they were instructed to self-isolate for two weeks. It is just not good enough.
Without effective and timely testing, contact tracing is rendered useless, and this is part of a pattern. Local councils have been failed at every turn; there is diminished national testing capacity; there has been no blanket additional support to set up local track and trace systems; and only limited financial support has been offered, with all this coming after a decade of austerity that has stripped much-valued public services to the bone. How can they effectively respond without adequate Government support?
Whenever the likes of me ask basic questions that are of serious concern to our anxious constituents, the Health and Social Care Secretary decides to gaslight or even wag his finger around, accusing us of using divisive language. Given that he does not seem to know the answer, perhaps the Minister can advise us and the good people of Slough as to when our test centre will go back to being a drive-through and walk-in facility, so that locals can actually access a test when they desperately need one.
The British people want to do the right thing—get tested and follow Government advice—but they are being badly let down by a Government whose dithering and incompetence has resulted in our Slough now sadly having seen the largest unemployment increase in the whole of the UK since the start of this outbreak. It is incredible that while some nations prioritised their public health, and others their economy, this Conservative Government have managed ineptly to sacrifice both.
It feels like a world ago when I was taken aside by my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, Jo Churchill, and told that Milton Keynes would be hosting a coronavirus quarantine centre for the repatriation of British nationals and their dependants returning from Wuhan. Shortly after that, we heard the sad news that one of the first deaths of a hospital patient who had tested positive for coronavirus had occurred in Milton Keynes University Hospital. I think about that moment a lot.
Since then, the world has changed. We learn new things about this virus and our ability to deal with it every day. We have had challenges, and we have overcome them. There will be more challenges ahead. We know that this virus thrives in cold, damp environments with low levels of ultraviolet radiation from sunlight and that transmission overwhelmingly occurs indoors. Cold, damp environments where we are overwhelmingly indoors are known in the UK as autumn and winter. These seasons are against us, and positive cases are rising.
That is why we all have a part to play. We must control the virus, protect lives and protect livelihoods until a vaccine can keep us safe. A big part of that is the app. The good people of Milton Keynes are famously tech savvy, and I am sure that many have already downloaded the NHS covid-19 app, but I must strongly encourage everyone to do so. It is a huge part of dealing with the virus and a huge part of test and trace.
It is not just about downloading the app; it is about what we do with our lives. It is about hands, face, space; the rule of six; understanding the rules and restrictions in our local tier; and, crucially—I say this to Opposition Members—it is about working together to defeat the virus. With winter just around the corner, now is not the time to be promoting alternative test and trace systems or undermining public confidence in the work of our NHS and public health professionals. We continue to expand our support for the local approach with a national framework. The experience of other countries shows that we need a national approach, because otherwise, the local test and trace operations simply will not join up.
My hon. Friend the Minister referenced the Lighthouse lab in Milton Keynes. I am immensely proud to represent Milton Keynes North in this place. We have robots, e-scooters and driverless cars. We have companies that are mining for water on the moon, and we have the most fantastically productive and brilliant people in this country. Of course Milton Keynes was selected to host one of the first Lighthouse labs. We now have robot freezers capable of processing up to 150,000 test results a day. Milton Keynes makes a fantastic contribution to our national effort.
The stunning achievement of getting that lab up and running has been down to amazing co-operation between the public sector, the private sector and the military—all working together, as we should in a national emergency. The Labour party wants to remove the private sector from test and trace. We have been able to ramp up testing to more than 134,000 a day only with the support, co-operation and innovation of the private sector. Some 22,000 of the 30,000 ventilators were produced by the private sector. The vaccine trials are being run by the private sector, including the potential game changer in Operation Moonshot. Dexamethasone, the first proven therapy for this horrible disease, is being produced at scale by the private sector. Thirty-two billion items of PPE have been provided by the private sector, keeping our health and social care professionals safe as they do their heroic work. Now is not the time to play ideological games with our response to a public health emergency. Now is the time to work together. Now is the time to use every lever possible to save lives, protect the NHS and beat this virus.
Order. I am afraid I have to reduce the time limit to three minutes—[Hon. Members: “Three minutes?”] Yes, because the debate ends at 7 o’clock. Members should not be surprised because they can see the call list. I call Dawn Butler.
I will try to keep my contribution to factual information, unlike some of the speeches that we have heard today. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for acknowledging and apologising for the failures of the test and trace system the other day.
Here are some general facts. The minutes from SAGE on
Therefore, every time it is said that Serco has reached 60%, that means that it is failing because it is not an effective test-and-trace system. It also states that 65% of people who test positive have no symptoms. It is wrong, therefore, for the Secretary of State to say that people who have no symptoms are not entitled to go for tests.
Randox won a £133 million contract—unopposed—for a test-and-trace system. It disposed of 12,401 used swabs in a single day, voided more than 35,000 used test kits and disposed of 750,000 unused coronavirus kits owing to safety standards. Even though there is an ongoing investigation it is important that we know where taxpayers’ money is being wasted. I would like the Minister to confirm whether Randox is charging the taxpayer for voided tests. How many tests has Randox voided to date, and how much is the taxpayer being charged for each voided test?
Professor Jon Deeks says that New Zealand tests people at least three times, whereas we in the United Kingdom have a leaky testing problem in contact tracing and run the risk of missing the disease. That is the problem. There has been a backlog of 185,000 Covid-19 tests, and some tests have been sent to Germany, and some to Italy. How many of our tests are processed in the UK, and how many are processed in Europe, which, incidentally, said we are not a priority? I wonder why.
Serco is one of the top outsourcing companies. Serco and Sitel are going to be paid £1 billion for their work. I would say that the money should be given to local authorities.
The BMJ released details of a leaked Government briefing stating that there will be 10 million Covid tests a day as part of a £100 billion expansion. That £100 billion should be given to local authorities.
I know that in some early listings I appear as the hon. Member for Ipswich. I am not the hon. Member for Ipswich—I never could be!—but if he was here I am sure he would agree that the Opposition’s brass neck takes some beating, in a week when we have seen craven, callous political opportunism of the worst kind from Labour Members. First, they were anti-10 pm closures; then, they were for 10 pm closures. First, they were against the tiered system; then, they were for the tiered system. First, they were against a circuit-breaker approach; then, they were for a circuit-breaker approach. I hope that Labour Front Benchers have cleared their position with the Leader of the Opposition, because for all we know he will be on TV in half an hour announcing a different position from the one they have taken here today.
The Opposition’s tone in opening the debate was quite depressing. We could have spent these few hours talking about how we work together to address the issues with the test-and-trace system, but, no, all we heard was typical Labour public good, private bad. Labour might have a new leader, but it is the same old Labour.
As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the Government’s aim and objective is to save lives. We accept that there are issues with the test-and-trace system, which is why we are working with all stakeholders—public, private, not for profit and local and national organisations—to get this right. It is not either/or. It is not public or private. It is not local or national. We are working to create a system that uses the best of all worlds.
We are providing £300 million to help local authorities to set up local test-and-trace services. We are extending the partnership between NHS Test and Trace and local authorities to reach more people who test positive—[Interruption.] They say we are not, but we are: it is a fact. We are bringing together the efforts and data of local and national services so that we can spot local flare-ups and take measures to control them more easily.
NHS Test and Trace—the Opposition would not say this—is delivering results. We are testing more than any other comparable European country today, and that is something of which we should be very proud. Test and trace plays a crucial role in our fight against coronavirus. It is not a question of national or local, but rather both working together to control and suppress the spread of this virus, and I really hope that the Labour party drops its recent approach and moves back to where it was in March, working constructively with the Government so that we can defeat this virus and save lives.
The world-beating test and trace system set up to control covid-19 has been an expensive failure. Covid-19 is having a devastating effect on lives and livelihoods at the speed we saw back in April, especially in less affluent areas and communities, such as Liverpool city region. The Government have difficulty admitting that, when the system has cost £12 billion, but recognise it and act they must, as lives are at stake.
For test and trace to work, the Government must learn lessons from the experiences and outcomes to date. Local knowledge is the key to success. When a business is looking to expand into new markets, local expertise is hired to help. This situation is no different. One centralised, outsourced system was destined to fail. For months, many people have called on the Government to support local authorities and public health and expand their role. Their teams have proven to be successful at controlling the outbreaks, once they have got over the business of testing and the lack of PPE in care homes in those areas.
National Test and Trace teams contact positive cases by phoning and leaving a message, but many do not get back to them. Sometimes, they pass those failures on to local government, and local government goes out, knocks on doors and gets responses, and that has been proven. These teams have invaluable knowledge of the people and places where they are working year in, year out. Higher contact tracing rates lead to reduced covid-19 spread. It is the only way to get it under control. Local authorities do not have the capacity to do it all themselves—they are already beyond stretched. One outsourcing company subcontracted 28 different companies with no knowledge or experience to succeed, and that has proven to be a failure.
Often, the solution is simple. We currently have too much of a disconnect between local and national teams. By the time the subcontractors contact local teams to help, days have passed with covid-19 on legs, spreading. Effective information-sharing leads to faster contact tracing. Redeploying the national pool of contact tracers directly with local teams would help that. That is how the country can get a test and trace system working, which is what we all want.
Local authorities and their public health teams should be given the lead on test and trace and the resource to do so. Adequate funding is necessary so that they can expand their teams, but it takes time to recruit, and that is why I urge that the 25,000 tracers employed by the private sector are redeployed somehow into local teams.
A comprehensive and effective track and trace system is essential if we are to tackle this virus. Sadly, the Government have failed to deliver on that. Wirral headteachers have written to me about the damaging delays in receiving test results, which have meant teachers in local schools being absent as they wait to find out whether they have covid-19. One NHS doctor wrote to describe how she, her husband, who is also a doctor, and other family members had multiple phone calls from different people giving them different advice on quarantine periods. Another individual told me how he received a letter dated
In the latest weekly statistics, more than 51,000 people tested positive for covid-19 nationally, but only two thirds of those were transferred to the contact tracing system. Council officers in Wirral tell me that the national system is only reaching 63% of close contacts in Wirral, meaning that 37% are not being provided with timely advice. I have written to the Secretary of State three times since May calling on the Government to share the vital data that Wirral Council public health department needs to aid it in its test and trace measures and outbreak plans.
Instead of putting contact tracing in the hands of councils or local public health teams who know their communities well, the Government have decided to award huge contracts with eye-watering sums of money to private companies to run test and trace. The Government have allowed their obsession with privatising the national health service to overshadow the need to provide a comprehensive and effective system. The public are quite rightly angry about that.
Serco was initially given a contract for £108 million for 14 weeks with the option to extend for a longer period, with a value of up to £410 million in total. However, we need to know how Serco’s performance is being measured and whether it has been subject to deductions for failing to meet standards of delivery. That transparency is denied to us under this Government.
Along with the additional restrictions that have come in for the Liverpool city region this week, the Government have at last confirmed £14 million for the region for a range of activities, which include enhanced contact tracing, but we need clarity from the Government. Will the Minister clarify how that money will be spent, and will she commit to an expansion of our local authority public health teams?
It is time that the Government took a sober look at the landscape in which we find ourselves. They must once and for all hand over control of contact tracing to councils and local public health teams across the country, and that must be backed up with the necessary resources, so that we can defeat the virus and save lives.
Arguing about what restrictions should be in place is no use—it is completely irrelevant—unless we have an effective contact tracing and tracking system. We will not get the R number down. We will not control the virus. I am just asking for an effective system, not a world-beating one. It should not be too much to ask.
The Minister mentioned walk-in centres—great. Darnall in my constituency had a high level of infections. A walk-in testing centre was introduced. Within a few days, people could not walk into it anymore, but they could phone up. When constituents phoned up to make an appointment at the local centre, they were diverted to another centre many miles away. That is no way to run an effective system. And then, of course, people wait days for the results to come back, meaning that other people are either walking around when they are infectious, when they should be isolating, or isolating when they have no need to. What a waste of people’s time. What a risk to health.
The Sheffield Star has done an excellent job in giving local people information. The other day it said that on the most recent figures, only 60% of people who should be contacted because they have been in contact with an infected person are actually being contacted through the track and trace system. Towards the end of September, only 60% of infected cases were being put in the system in the first place, which means that only one third of those who should have been contacted were actually being contacted. This is a major failure—a system that is not effective; it is simply failing. Compare that with the 97% contact rate that has been achieved where contact tracking and tracing is being done at a local level by local authorities and local directors of public health.
I am not against a national system. I am not saying that everything is going to be invented locally. I argued to the Prime Minister, however, when he came to the Liaison Committee on
I have believed from the beginning that we should have had more stringent penalties in the national system to ensure that people complied with the requirements, and people should have been compensated for a loss of income when they isolated from the beginning. I am not against the private sector being involved, but it is about where the expertise is. The private sector’s expertise is clearly in developing a vaccine. It should be allowed to do that, but the expertise for contact tracking and tracing is with directors of public health. That is what they do as a profession—control infectious diseases—and very simply, if we are going to be effective, it is much more effective for a director of public health to recruit a local person to go and knock on someone’s door than for that person to get a phone call from someone else 200 miles away who does not understand the local area.
My constituents’ experience of the test, trace and isolate system run by the UK Government is that it has been a complete and utter fiasco at every single stage.
On the tests, when people go on the website, regularly there are absolutely no tests available anywhere in the whole of the United Kingdom, or if they are lucky, they will be sent from the Rhondda to Aberdeen or Aberystwyth, presumably because that is alphabetically at least close to Aberdare, even if it is not physically close to the Rhondda at all.
There are no home test kits nearly all the time. A high percentage of my constituents have no car, but they are not allowed to go on public transport, so it is pretty difficult for them to get to any of the test sites. Even today, people had booked a walk-in appointment in Treorchy—they walked 6 miles there and were going to walk 6 miles back—but when they arrived they were told that they could not have their test because they were not in a car, even though it was meant to be a walk-in site.
The results service is shockingly poor: according to the Government’s own figures, just 2% of people got their results within 24 hours last week. Just 2%—how on earth could someone intend to keep a contract with a company that was failing so badly? Why is it that this company cannot do what hundreds of other private sector companies in the country do, which is allow people to track their result? People can track their Amazon delivery—I have never had one because Amazon does not pay its taxes properly—by can logging on and finding out exactly when it is going to arrive. Why can this company not do the same? It would save hours and hours of time—not least in constituency MPs’ offices, I suspect—if there was a proper system for that.
The isolate system has also been a complete failure, because the Government do not seem to understand that for many people, including many tradeswomen and tradesmen and people who work on an hourly or daily basis, the cost of self-isolating is a complete disincentive to doing the right thing. People simply cannot afford to put food on the table for their kids and be able to self-isolate for two weeks. The system the Government are introducing is far too late. It came into place only on
The tracing system has been a complete disaster. The target that the Government set was 80%; they have never met it in a single week—and last week it was the worst result ever. I do not understand why Baroness Harding is still in her job. It is an absolute mystery to me. Incidentally, it is a constitutional aberration that a Member of the House of Lords who votes on party political issues is also working in effect as a civil servant.
I hate this concept of “world-beating”. Every time the Prime Minister tries to look Churchillian, he just looks like Neville Chamberlain to me. Lockdowns are a sign of the failure of this system, but I bet that is where we end up.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I support Labour’s motion. This is not about ideology; it is about what works. In the midst of a public health emergency and an economic crisis the likes of which we have never seen before, it is about not politics but what works. We in the Liberal Democrats have been calling since April for tracing to be locally led, because we understand that local authorities know their communities best and local directors of public health have the expertise to do the tracing.
There has been a lot of talk about testing and I have talked a lot about testing, so I shall not go over that, given the time available, but the one thing I will say about it is that we must—must—turn around tests within 24 hours. That turnaround time has dropped to around 25% and tracing is not effective if the tests are not turned around quickly enough.
I have heard about local tracing for myself from directors of public health and local councillors. In Watford, they have a 93% local tracing rate. This morning, I talked to councillors in Liverpool, where they have a 97% local tracing rate. Until today, they had had only £300,000 to do that tracing, yet on average they have to trace around 5,000 contacts a day. Yes, more resources are now going to tier 3, but that resource needs to go everywhere.
Sky News has just broken the story that it has uncovered Boston Consulting Group contracts that suggest BCG consultants are paid £7,000 day rates to work on test and trace. Just imagine how far that money would go if it was given to local authorities. These consultants are being paid weekly the equivalent of what a nurse earns in a year. I do not have an ideological issue with the private sector, but, as the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Mr Betts, said, it is about having the right expertise in the right place.
On isolation, as Chris Bryant said, it is important that we have in place the right package of support, both financial and practical, as we have seen in other countries, including Korea and Germany. There is a local element in Italy and Iceland, where local service providers are also supporting enforcement with their local populations. It is not about slapping £10,000 fines on people for not self-isolating, as this place has legislated to do.
I say to the Minister humbly: please recognise that you cannot get everything right in a pandemic. Change tack or we will be stuck in this yo-yo situation forever. The only way to keep the virus under control is by testing, tracing and isolating, so for the sake of the British people, to save lives and to save jobs, turn around tests in 24 hours, devolve tracing locally and double down on isolation. That should be the ultimate condition if there is to be a circuit breaker. We need a major overhaul of the system.
The only thing I agreed with in the coalition Government’s reform of the health service was the devolution of public health to local councils. As my hon. Friend Mr Betts says, that is because they know how to do it. They do it every week for sexually transmitted diseases, TB and other outbreaks.
The hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) and for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) accused those of us on the Opposition Benches of being ideological. Let me put it on the record: I have no ideological issues with using the private sector when it adds benefit. It is this Government who have been ideological. Their national test and trace system ignored local authorities. With the school meals vouchers, they did not give the money to local authorities to put systems in place; it was a national system. PPE was a disaster. Even the national volunteering programme, where people who signed up were unable to volunteer, was all done nationally. That national approach has been the biggest failure throughout this crisis. That has been the ideological mindset of the Government. The issue with getting test and trace in place has become all about the number of tests. No, it is not. It is what you do with those results afterwards. For example, in Cumbria test and trace is being done locally. It has lower rates and those rates are going down.
The system is broken. Andrew Bowie said that the Government have given local authorities £300 million. So what? They have put billions of pounds into the hands of private companies, which have then completely failed. If we were employing them ourselves directly, we would have sacked them a long time ago.
The Government can bring in as many tiers and as much information as they want, but there are two things that have to be done with public health messages: make them clear and explain why they are being done. On those two things, the Government have failed completely by chopping and changing. They can bring in as many fines and restrictions as they like, but unless there is effective testing and, more importantly, tracing of individuals, they will not get on top of this crisis. Added to that, the national contract means that my constituents who work in care homes are waiting seven days to get a test result. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work.
It is no good the Government saying they are working with local authorities. They are not. They are basically throwing over to local authorities the positive test results they cannot trace themselves. In many cases, it is too late. My local director of public health says she is getting information 48 hours late. That is of absolutely no use. So, come on Government! Wake up! Get out of your ideological bubble and actually ensure you engage with local authorities.
It is very difficult to convey the real strength of feeling across Liverpool at the utter failure of this Government on care homes, PPE, and test and trace. Constituent after constituent has come to my office with heartbreaking stories. One was sent to south Wales on a 70-mile journey, two-and-a-half hours in the car with an autistic child, only to find that the test and trace centre had closed for the day because it had run out of tests. The petrol cost them £40 that they simply did not have.
The anger and frustration are not just at the fact that the response is failing, but that it is failing because the Government refused to enable and invest in local authorities and public health teams, and instead chose to pump billions into scandal-ridden Government contractors that have a record of failure after failure. Under the cover of this pandemic, billions of pounds of public money has been handed to faceless corporations, including Tory-linked firms, without competition or transparency, and without democratic accountability—or any accountability to the public, for that matter. It is money that should have been invested in our national health service and that should have left a legacy for the British people by building up the properly funded public services we can all rely on in the future, but instead it was siphoned off.
The most egregious example is the eye-watering £12 billion of public money handed to private companies, including Serco, for this failing test and trace system. The failures of Serco are well documented so I will not repeat them, but when I asked the Government what penalties will apply to private sector companies that fail to meet the terms of their contract, the answer came back and it was clear: none whatsoever. In fact, Serco is being rewarded for its failure with more and more lucrative contracts. The cronyism is well documented as well. Conservative Baroness and business executive Baroness Harding was appointed as the head of Track and Trace. The Serco chief executive officer is the brother of a former Tory MP, and Tory MPs are on the boards of companies winning contracts. If we have a problem with any of this, why not take it up with the Government’s anti-corruption champion—Dido Harding’s husband and a Tory MP? The whole thing stinks. This Government’s incompetence, cronyism and ideological obsession with outsourcing and rip-off privatisation have undermined our NHS and put lives at risk.
We are at a crossroads in this crisis and the Government, rather than knowing which way to turn, are instead caught in the headlights. This Government have had seven months to get their test and trace system in place, but, tragically for the almost 50,000 people who have lost their lives already since this pandemic started, it has failed. There can be no excuse when our European partners have had an effective system in place since May.
This is a deeply worrying period for my Stockport constituents, given that Greater Manchester and the north-west are witnessing some of the highest infection rates in the country, and we are now in the Government’s tier 2 category. Indeed, in the borough of Stockport alone, there are now more than 4,000 cases of coronavirus, and it is being reported that the Government will today convene a gold command meeting where Greater Manchester may be moved into tier 3—the highest category.
Despite this, the Government are offering little beyond lockdown measures to stop the spread of this deadly disease. The Mayor of Greater Manchester has been calling for proper funding for test and trace for months, and only today the leaders of all 10 councils in Greater Manchester and the Mayor, Andy Burnham, released a statement in response to the new restrictions. In it, they call for testing
“to enable targeting of known or emerging points of transmission.”
They also raise valid concerns about this Government’s attempt to bounce Greater Manchester into the higher risk tier 3 category.
To pick up the hon. Member’s point about specific venues and contact tracing, in my constituency, pubs and restaurants have been successfully using track and trace now for several months. Venues such as Candid Beer, the Bird in Hand and the Market Vaults are already using contact tracing very well. Does he not agree with me that contact tracing is actually playing a vital role in helping keep our hospitality industry open for business?
I understand the points the hon. Lady is making, but I think contact tracing in Greater Manchester and places with very high rates of infection has not worked as well as it should have. I am pleased to hear that in her constituency it is working well, but I think the Government need to come forward with a proper package to support jobs in the hospitality sector if they are going to force regions like the Liverpool city region or Greater Manchester into tier 3.
The Government are dangling the carrot of local control of test and trace. However, this should be on offer for all areas, and is more likely to be effective in areas that are in tier 1 and tier 2. If this Government pursue their current strategy, they will leave large parts of the north of England trapped in tier 3 for much of the winter. Given that cases are forecast to rise sharply as this Government lose control and refuse to provide the substantial economic support that tier 3 areas will need, I fully support the call by a number of local authority leaders in Greater Manchester for a national circuit break. This would also create the conditions for a reset of the test and trace service into a more locally controlled option, which will hopefully drive cases down to a lower level and be more likely to succeed.
The only way to defeat the virus is for national and local government to work hand in hand, upskill the local test and trace system, delegate sufficient powers and provide the financial support that is so desperately required after 10 years of austerity and having stumped up millions during the first phase of this pandemic. But instead of addressing the failures of a privatised and centralised contact tracing model, this Government choose to keep pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into the likes of Serco to lead the effort on tracking and tracing. This is despite the recent poll by Survation revealing that 74% of the public wanted to see local public health teams, rather than profit-making companies, leading on this. Our European partners have had systems in place since May, yet almost six months later this Government are rushing to hand the nearest contract to big business with no track record of delivery or success.
It is clear is that we cannot have more of the same from this Government such as the shambles of being informed by a Health Minister that a new testing centre was being opened for my constituents on a University of Greenwich campus 240 miles away in Kent. I have already made it clear to the House that I am willing to accept that the letter was an error, but it further exposes the Government’s complete mishandling of this crisis. In the absence of any effective form of test and trace, frontline staff, including all workers in hospitals, schools and local authorities, must be provided with access to adequate personal protective equipment.
It is nearly nine months since the first case of covid came to my constituency and, in that first instance, we had an effective test and trace system. But my goodness, what has happened since? We know from across the world that effective test and tracing is beating the virus but here in the UK the virus is beating us. That is why it is essential that we get on top of the essential ingredients of an effective test and trace system. Filling the pockets of all these private companies with contract after contract is failing, and we know why that has been done—the lack of investment in our NHS and in public health for years. That has meant that they are bereft of the resources they need.
We need to turn this round and we have the opportunity of this debate to address the issue effectively. We know from the statistics that my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves set out earlier that, if about two thirds of people who have been tested are then transferred to the contact tracing system, only 17% of them are reached. That means that fewer than half the people are effectively contact traced. That simply is not good enough in the midst of this pandemic. Time is of the essence and we need to address this now Any transfer that we see to local authorities must also see the transfer of resources. We cannot just see the transfer of risk without the money coming with it to back it up and enable local authorities to run effective systems locally.
I have talked to my local director of public health and she has led an excellent fight to put the case not only for local testing but for saying where we need the centres to be. We need another testing centre in York and we have been working with the university and a local lab to prove that we have a test processing and trace system for our city. That is what we need for a fast turnaround of results. Time is of the essence with this virus and the faster we get the results, the faster we trace people who are potentially carrying the virus. We will then be able to lock the virus down, which is what we want to do.
I am confused, and I am sure I am not the only one, as to why York today is in tier 1 when the infection rate there is higher than in some of the places in tier 3. It does not make sense. I want the Minister to explain the rationale for that. Yesterday, there were 95 infections in York, and 246.4 per 100,000 and growing fast. We need to understand the rationale, not least because the infection is transmitting in our city and we know that because we have been holding a mirror tracing system that has seen it go from household to household. Yet tier 1 does not bar such contact. If we are really serious about understanding how to stop the virus, we need to go through the proper processes and involve the local directors of public health who could tell the Government that we need the controls to stop the spread at this critical time before it gets completely out of control.
It is because of the failures that I have described that the Labour party has been saying that there will be a need for a circuit break. If the Government could respond with proper measures, we would not need it. The Government only need look in the mirror to see why we are in this place.
Some incredible science is being done in our universities and local labs, and I look forward to my meeting on Friday with the Minister on what is being done in York, where the capacity, efficiency and effectiveness of testing can seriously outstrip many of those procured labs which the Minister and her Government have already engaged in.
This is a real opportunity. We have to use the best science, and I trust that we will be able to do so.
I am glad to be called in this debate, so thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will make one point before speaking about tracking and tracing in the Wirral.
It is disappointing to listen to Conservative Members criticising a political party’s position or what its briefings might have been earlier this week or last week, before SAGE’s minutes and reports were published on the next steps that are needed. I would far rather that the Labour party had to correct its press releases than that we fail to save lives that we otherwise could. I am sorry that Conservative Members take a different view.
My hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood spoke about the need for improved, larger public health teams, particularly in the Wirral. I am thankful for Julie Webster and Elspeth Anwar, our director and deputy director of public health in the Wirral, who have been absolutely first-class public servants. They have explained to me that, although they now have much more data about the outbreak in the Wirral and the rest of Merseyside, we do not have enough analysis.
That is to say that we cannot easily understand the story the data is telling us, because we do not have enough specialists working on this, particularly in the Wirral. I have learned through three years on the Treasury Committee and wading through reams of economic data that it is not actually about the figures in front of you; it is about understanding the story that the data is telling you and acting accordingly. It is not numbers for the sake of numbers; it is the instructions those numbers give.
In an outbreak like this, we need a hypothesis about the methods of transmission so that we are able to test it against the data. I say to the Minister that we not only need to help local authorities with the data; we also need analytical capacity in every town hall in Britain, because this virus travels through local areas in different ways. In London, many people are able to work from home. In a manufacturing environment, as we have in the Wirral, that just is not possible. People cannot make cars and airplanes from their front room.
The virus travels differently in places where public transport is more frequently used. Some places use buses rather than trains, and they are a different environment. That is why I say again to the Minister: give us data analysts in every town hall in Britain, so we can understand how this virus is travelling through our country and put a stop to it. If we had proper analysis and local understanding, we would have half a chance of finding out how this virus works.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend Alison McGovern said.
NHS Test and Trace is not working. Billions of pounds have been poured into a system that has sidelined existing local expertise in primary care, public health and science. The resulting system is labelled NHS Test and Trace, but it has hardly anything to do with the NHS. Stop denigrating the NHS by associating it with this failing system.
We are stuck in this world of uncertainty, with a rising infection rate and the virus out of control, and we are without the ability to properly track it, as my hon. Friend has just described. It is like “Groundhog Day”. Until we have a vaccine, we will not get out of this without a functioning track and trace system.
We are the fifth richest economy in the world, and we have one of the best healthcare systems. We have leading science research universities, yet we have spent all this money contracting out the system to Serco. Now, on top of that, we are spending millions of pounds bringing in private contractors to try to sort out the mess. It costs more in one week than we pay an experienced nurse in a year. It is a disgrace, and it feels like a wasted opportunity to build on the existing expertise and experience to strengthen the local systems in primary care and local authorities. Doing that now is the only way out of this nightmare scenario.
The outbreaks we have seen in the universities in Newcastle, for example, were not identified by the national system—it seems incapable of doing that at present. The outbreaks were identified based on local intelligence and local knowledge, and by piecing the pieces together. We know that co-operation between local health services and authorities is the way to control infectious diseases. GPs, NHS and public health laboratories, and local public health officers all play a key role. Winter is approaching and GPs will be the people who can see the overlap in covid symptoms such as fever and a dry cough, and the classic flu symptoms of fatigue, sore throat and headaches. We need that integrated public health expertise to truly make this testing and tracking system work. We have 1,200 primary care networks in England. They will be best placed not only to run test, track and trace, but to deliver the vaccine when we finally have it—we will be ready for it.
I hear time and again from this side of the House people talking about giving more to the primary care networks. As a GP, I worry that this could be a concern for my public health colleagues as well because they already serve a function—of non-covid health service. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of others on this concern: what happens if we keep putting more pressure on public health and GPs, who are already dealing with non-covid stuff? How do we deal with this? It makes a lot of sense to bring in a national service to try to do that; we did that with the Army to help with test, track and trace. What does the hon. Lady think about the possibility of extra pressure there?
Absolutely, spend the billions of pounds that we have wasted—spend it on bumping up the capacity and ability of our local GPs and health services, which can do a better job.
I wish to say a word about asymptomatic carriers. Research published by University College London last week found that 86% of those sampled who had tested positive for covid-19 between April and July had had no symptoms—that includes cough, fever or loss of taste and smell. So many people who are asymptomatic test positive, as we have seen at Northumbria University, and that is hugely concerning. It shows that we need a much more robust and expanded testing strategy to control the virus.
What are the Government doing to ensure that we can capture these silent spreaders? Is the system anywhere close to having the capacity to address this, given that we cannot even test those who have symptoms and have been instructed to take a test? The Government wasted the time we spent in national lockdown and failed to get the apparatus of proper track and trace system in place once those restrictions were finally relaxed. We are now living with the consequences of that decision. As we now appear to be entering another era of harsher restrictions across much of the country, the Government owe it to the people who continue to endure hardship, uncertainty, loneliness and bereavement not to waste this time again.
May I start by placing on the record my thanks to my local director of public health, Sarah Muckle, and her team for all their hard work during this pandemic? Labour has been calling on the Government to learn the lessons, help curb a rise in infections and save lives. The Government continue to use this phrase “NHS track and trace system”, which is more widely and truthfully known by the British public as, “Huge amounts of cash going to big private companies”—companies with links to the Tory party, and companies with truly abysmal track and trace records and poor results: in short, Serco and Sitel. The Government are doing this instead of funding local contact tracing and addressing the failures of a privatised and centralised contact tracing model.
Bradford, which contains my constituency, consistently seems to perform bottom on tracking and tracing the contacts of those who test positive for covid-19. The average percentage of contacts reached in Bradford over the last nine-week data period was 48.1%, but some weeks the figure has been lower than 40%. That is half the Government’s target. The rising infection rates are the direct result of a broken track and trace system, the Government’s inability to use straightforward communication and sheer incompetence on the part of this Government.
Here are some examples to illustrate how poor the Government’s communications have been. Two days ago, the Secretary of State told me that Bradford will be in the high tier of restrictions. Later that same day, in the press conference, the chief medical officer praised Bradford for our response to the situation. Then yesterday, we heard that the Government had started discussions to place Bradford in the highest tier of restrictions. Today, there is a pre-paid, pre-booked full-page Government advertisement in the Telegraph and Argus, Bradford’s local paper, saying that Bradford is in the medium tier of restrictions. So which one is it? Are we in the medium, high or higher tier?
Hold on—there’s more. On a Zoom call two days ago, I asked the Secretary of State what his Department was doing to address the issue of low numbers of people being tracked and traced in Bradford. Two days later, I still have no response, and yet the Secretary of State expects Members to be on a call with 20 minutes’ notice, and that is if they are lucky enough to get the email and not be on a train travelling down here.
The privatised track and trace programme is not working. My constituents deserve better. We need to get ahead of this virus. I will come to this Chamber time and again to highlight the Government’s incompetence and hold them to account for the sake of my constituents, because my constituents deserve better.
I spent an early part of my career in the sales industry, selling in the IT sector. I just wish that at some point I had come across a customer with as much money as this Government, and one so easily impressed and willing to give money to suppliers and then to defend them when they let them down. I never came across a customer nearly as naive as this Government.
Occasionally, a story seems to demonstrate a much wider point. So it was today with the scoop revealed by Ed Conway of Sky News that the Government are paying £7,360 per day to the management consultants at Boston Consulting Group, who are in charge of test and trace. That is the equivalent of a £1.5 million salary to preside over this shambolic system that is letting down all the people in my constituency and so many others. We will not find dedicated public servants being paid £7,500 a day or £1.5 million a year, but we will find a basic competence, a knowledge of their area and a desire to ensure that systems work before they are implemented. That is what we need right now in our system.
It is telling that, in a debate of this importance, with every Back-Bench Member of Parliament invited to contribute, just three Conservative MPs wanted to put their name on the list and say, “I will go in and speak up for the Government, because I think they are doing a good job.” That is because people in their constituencies know what is happening, and Conservative Members do not want it to be on their record that they were the ones speaking up for the Government, so they leave it to us to come here and expose the reality. That is what is happening. There are 365 Tory MPs—where are they? They are off in their offices hiding, while people in my constituency are being let down. [Interruption.] I accept that three have turned up, and I thank them for that, but I am talking about the rest of them.
We all remember when Leicester first went into lockdown and everyone said, “Oh my God! The rate in Leicester is appalling—those poor people.” The infection rate was less than 100 per 100,000 then.
Does my hon. Friend share my worry that the proportion of people being reached by Test and Trace has decreased over the last three weeks and is now at a level similar to the one seen in the first week of the programme?
Yes, I do, and I had an experience of that recently.
Leicester had a rate of 100 per 100,000 when it went into lockdown. In Chesterfield, we have a rate of 143 per 100,000, and we are still in tier 1. The scale of how bad this must be before the Government are shocked is changing all the time.
I was recently in self-isolation because a friend told me that he had been diagnosed with coronavirus four days before Test and Trace got in touch with me. The date that Test and Trace had was nine days after I came out of self-isolation. The whole system is not working, and when you experience it yourself, you can see why this failure is happening.
The purpose of test, track and trace is to save lives. Despite the Prime Minister’s promise of a “world-beating” system, the system that we have is shambolic. Health contracts worth £830 million have been handed to private companies using public money to run ineffective systems, instead of investing in our public services. In Wales, we have established a successful public sector “test, trace, protect” system, and recent figures show that 96% of close contacts have been reached—much higher than the Serco private sector system. Currently, however, testing in Wales is still partly dependent on the UK Government’s privately run and centrally managed testing system, which has caused confusion and placed people at risk.
I will illustrate the point with my experience in Cynon Valley, which has one of the privately run centres. It is a case study in how not to do things. On
I was astounded to find that the centrally administered, privately run system was allocating appointments that required people to travel hundreds of miles across the UK, including families with children and vulnerable people. That was unacceptable and extremely dangerous to those coming into the high-incidence area, as well as to the local population in my constituency. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on that day in September with a series of questions, but I have yet to receive a response. That is totally unacceptable.
Thank goodness that in Wales we have a measure of independence from this Tory Government, and that we were able to act to address the problems through a system co-ordinated by a proactive local authority health board and the Welsh Government. As the public are asked to make sacrifices to reduce the transmission of covid-19, it is imperative for the Government to keep their side of the bargain and get the test, track and trace system right. Most importantly, I know from experience that local decision making in action is best, as are publicly owned services. Let us learn the lessons of Abercynon, invest in our public services and not let private profit and greed override the health needs in our communities.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Deputy Speaker. I simply must use this opportunity to echo the sentiments of my constituency neighbours and hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) about the Welsh Labour Government’s approach to contact tracing. In Wales, contact tracing is managed by local authorities and health boards and allows for a more cohesive approach to contacting those at risk of contracting the virus.
I truly feel sorry for my colleagues who represent areas across England, both in this place and at local authority level. Shockingly, councils across England are rapidly losing faith in the Government’s shambolic track and trace system and are being forced to take action themselves. By contrast, the Welsh Labour Government have taken a cautious yet clear approach to the coronavirus, with local contact tracing at the very heart of their policy. I have said it many, many times and I am happy to keep saying it: where Wales leads, England should follow. I sincerely hope that after this debate the Minister will be able to convince England’s Health Secretary to follow the localised approach of track and trace, which is clearly the best option if we are ever to get a grip on this virus.
Sadly, even with our fantastic Welsh Labour Government, this Government’s chaotic handling of the coronavirus has still had a significant impact on people in Wales. Colleagues will have heard that the First Minister of Wales has now had to announce that he has been forced to introduce new regulations to protect the health of the people in Wales, after this Government have yet again stood back. The Prime Minister fails to engage with the Welsh Labour Government, and in doing so he has failed the people across Wales. Hundreds of people in my constituency of Pontypridd have been pushing for restrictions on travel into Wales for people who are living in coronavirus hotspots in England, yet the Prime Minister ignores them.
The UK Government are cherry-picking what they want and when they want to support the devolved nations, but on coronavirus testing, tracking and tracing, they are causing more delays, damage and destruction. It simply is not fair to the people in Wales, and we deserve better. The Minister may also be aware that there are a number of coronavirus testing sites in Rhondda Cynon Taf, including one in Treforest in my constituency. I do not believe that any of us in this place are in a position to refuse help for local authorities with coronavirus testing, but I am flabbergasted that the UK Government have gone ahead and launched the site without consulting the Welsh Government. I could get over this if I had faith in the UK Government’s system in the first place. Thankfully, in Wales we have the Welsh Government, who have been able to step in where possible, but this simply should not be the case.
I fully support the collaborative approach to tackling the virus, but this can only work when the UK Government can admit, acknowledge and act on their own mistakes and failings. I hope that ultimately the Minister sees sense and acknowledges that the system for track and trace across England is on its knees. Only when we have a robust, local authority-led track and trace system in place across the UK will we ever have any hope of seeing coronavirus rates reduce across all our nations.
Let us be clear from the start: the test, trace and isolate chaos that we are currently facing has been caused by outsourced companies running what should be public services for their own private profit. The current restrictions were never inevitable; they became inevitable as a result of this Government’s failure to get a properly functioning test, trace and isolate system in place. The system has been given to private companies with no qualifications for this work, overseen by business executives with no experience in public health. Just days before local restrictions came into place in the north-east, my Jarrow constituents were asking me to find out what has happened with the “shambles”, as they put it, that is the covid testing system. One constituent, Tracy, told me how a family member did a 110-mile round trip from Gateshead to Hawick in Scotland for a test. This was while there were appointments in Newcastle just a few miles along the road, but the centre had IT problems and the QR code was not being generated. She was rightly furious that her family member, while displaying symptoms, had to drive this distance. My Jarrow constituents are right: it is an utter shambles.
This Government’s approach to contact tracing is not just shambolic—it is dangerous. The evidence shows that contact tracing works much better on a local level. Both the South Tyneside and Gateshead local authorities covering my constituency have been constantly telling the Government this, but they are just not listening. I pay tribute to Alice Wiseman and Tom Hall, the directors of public health for those authorities, and their teams, for their dedication and hard work.
From Oldham to Peterborough, from Manchester to Cumbria, and across Wales, we have seen how local councils bring back much higher contact rates and can curb the spread of infection far more than the outsourced model that the Government keep throwing money away on. The Government know it is not working, yet the same old Tory ideological commitment to outsourcing continues. According to the Government’s own data, local health protection teams are reaching 97% of contacts and asking them to self-isolate, while, in contrast, outsourced cases handled online or by call centres return 62.4% contact rates. The most striking thing is that the Government have had plenty of opportunity throughout the summer to address the failures of a privatised and centralised contact tracing model, yet they have chosen to keep pouring money into the likes of Serco to lead the effort on tracking and tracing.
There must be a common-sense approach at both ends of this. Does the hon. Lady accept that, as my hon. Friend Dr Evans said, the NHS and public health authorities do not have the capacity to cope with the vast number of tests, and we need this national approach as well as local involvement?
No, I do not. The Government can put this right by putting more money in, of course.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah), among others, have said, we have to stop calling it “NHS Track and Trace”, as it clearly is not. It has failed, it is wasteful, it is throwing taxpayers’ money down the drain, and the people of this country deserve better. In fact, only this afternoon, as already highlighted by my hon. Friend Mr Perkins, I heard that the Government paid Boston Consulting Group about £10 million for a team of 40 consultants to do four months’ work on this failed testing system between the end of April and late August. Yet our local public services, hollowed out by 10 years of austerity, are being left with no support to pick up the pieces of a failed system.
Our local authorities in the north-east were crucial in the frontline against the first wave of this virus. That is why the Government must recognise their value by extending additional funding for contact tracing available in tier 3 areas to all parts of the country. The Government must ensure that local authorities and public health teams receive the resources and powers that they need.
The all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, which I chair, led hearings all through the summer; the very first ones we held back in July were on test and trace, and then we did it again last week. It was saddening to see that a lot of the predictions many of the experts made about the issues with test and trace back in July have since come to fruition. The things they were saying were very much common sense.
First, and I hope this is self-evident, this stuff is not easy. It may seem easy when we have read a briefing from the Library or whatever else, and the basic principles are easy, but the specifics of running a massive lab are very niche and require a lot of expertise. There are very few people in this country who can do this incredibly well, so when we say it should be a locally led test and trace system, of course it needs to be backed up by national capacity, but it should be led by those who are closest on the ground. We also took evidence from experts in Italy, who were also pointing to what Germany has done, and what they have in common is that that is how they run it: the people closest to the ground lead it, backed up by national systems and national resourcing. That is what we are asking for; it is what we have been asking for for the past three months, and here we are on the verge of what is likely to be an inevitable second national lockdown, because yet again we are not listening to the scientists.
Well, we will see. I sincerely hope I am wrong, but unfortunately, we have not done enough listening to the experts.
Speaking of experts, I want to put on record my thanks to Oxfordshire’s public health director and his team, but also the councillors, the councils and the lab technicians—the people behind the scenes, who very rarely receive thanks. They do an incredible job, and one of the things I would like to highlight while the Minister is in her place is that concerns have been raised about pillar 1 and pillar 2 testing labs not talking to each other. There is not enough transparency coming out of the community testing Lighthouse labs, and we cannot be assured of their quality. Those concerns have been raised by people who are really expert in this area and would like to be able to help, so I have a plea to the Minister: can we please be more transparent about what is coming out of the Lighthouse labs, so that it can be scrutinised by real experts in the field?
I will end with a heartbreaking story of what this means. I heard from the mother of a disabled child in my constituency whose carers were unable to receive tests, so the mother was not able to visit them for two weeks during September. That child is unable to read their facial expressions owing to PPE and therefore struggles to interact with them; and because the carers were unable to receive tests, the mother is incredibly worried and that child is left without the proper care. This all comes back to real stories and real people.
Today, Sheffield’s director of public health, Greg Fell, said that it is not a matter of if, but when, Sheffield heads into tier 3 lockdown. Yesterday, he reported that the number of cases in the city stands at 450 in 100,000, taken as a rolling seven-day average.
Sheffield has two fantastic, world-class universities. Since the return to teaching, we have seen a large spike in cases among the 15 to 25-year-olds in my city, but the virus is spreading beyond that group. Our public health team is reporting a significant increase in cases among the over-65s. We have also seen more people admitted to hospital, and more people given oxygen and ventilation. I am sure there are Members from across the House who can report very similar experiences.
Sheffield’s local public health team is clear that getting this under control needs a quick turnaround of test results, and rapid and complete contact tracing. People in my constituency and across the country desperately need a functioning test, track and trace—and do not forget isolate—system, but the Government are failing them. Many people in my constituency have contacted me to say they have struggled to access a test, and that when they have finally got hold of one it has taken far too long to receive results, with one in four people receiving their test results later than the 24-hour period promised by the Prime Minister.
I am one of the few Members in this place who has experience as both a biomedical scientist and a deputy leader of a council, so I am in a pretty unique position to talk about the research that is going on at the moment in our universities. In research conducted by Unite, we heard some shocking reports from NHS scientists about the under-utilisation of NHS testing labs. Meanwhile, the privatised network of Lighthouse labs has seen backlogs of 185,000 tests.
No, I will not give way because we are short on time.
Why are the Government prioritising those private labs over our NHS to implement the testing system when those labs are clearly failing? We have seen some really good success in our labs in Sheffield, which have been testing staff at the teaching hospitals, and that could have been a lesson learned and applied across the country.
I have conducted polymerase chain reaction tests. I know that it is not that difficult. Moonshot is a complete and utter dream. I can safely say that I have been watching the testing system with frustration and I have suddenly become very popular with my ex-colleagues. They have been very enlightening when describing the conditions in which they have been working—often as volunteers while they are furloughed from their other labs.
In Sheffield, we heard that a recruitment drive was requested by the Prime Minister in September—a little bit late and a little bit after the horse has bolted. By that time, the planning for teaching was well under way and the contracts of many of them had ended and the seconding of staff was no longer available.
I have much more to say on this issue. I could go on and on and on, but the last thing I wish to say is that the numbers speak for themselves—
Liverpool is proof, if proof is needed, that the Government’s privatised test and trace system has failed. The Government have had months to get an effective system in place, but we are still waiting for it. The proportion of people being reached by the test and trace system has decreased over the past three weeks, coinciding with the sharpest increase in infection rates that we have seen since the first wave in the spring. We cannot afford to have an ineffective test, track and trace system.
No, thank you. I cannot give way.
Let us be clear: it is not the NHS test and trace system that is failing us because the NHS has not been given the contract. It is a privatised system, wasting billions of pounds, that is failing us and the people of this country. We can no longer depend on a national system that 74% of the population believe is not working. Contracts are handed out without competitive tendering, which is what happened with the company that was set up on
Half of the wards in my constituency are in the top 20% of deprived neighbourhoods. Poverty is strongly linked with the incidence of covid-19. We have a large black community who are more susceptible to the virus and prone to a disproportionate number of deaths. As of this afternoon, Liverpool has no intensive care unit beds in the city, and the virus is impacting other critical care wards. It is time that this Government stop playing ideological games with people’s lives and handed responsibility back to local authorities, regional public health directors and our NHS to run this critical programme, save lives and protect our NHS.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate on local track and trace in England, which is highlighting the failure of the centralised, private, not NHS, track and trace system.
Public health has been embedded in local structures since the Public Health Act 1848, which came about following the devastating cholera outbreaks. Directors of public health have been tracing and tracking, and so tackling, outbreaks of disease in England since then—tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and food poisoning to name just a few. Experienced DPHs are embedded in the local councils and work alongside the local NHS, the voluntary sector, care providers and employers. They know their communities. In communities such as mine, they have people who can speak the various different community languages, too. They work within regional and national public health networks.
The Minister said earlier in this debate that Government and local government are better together, but councils’ competence in infection control was actually only fully acknowledged by the Government on Monday in a statement by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. After months of asking, it was July before directors of public health in England were finally sent the contact details of residents known to be infected. Even now, Hounslow’s director of public health says that data sent from the national system is still often inaccurate, meaning that some people are contacted twice, so feel harassed and alienated by the system, and, worse, others are not contacted at all. We know that similar countries, such as Germany and South Korea, can do track and trace effectively. Neighbouring Wales traces 97% of contacts, against England’s 62.4% and declining.
I have long experience of leadership roles in local government. I am not ideologically opposed to procuring from the private sector when it can do something better, but at the core of public sector outsourcing is, or rather should be, proper commissioning—how much, how many, by when and to what standard—and procurement from those with proven competency, through competitive tendering, providing value for money. We cannot have sanctions for non-performance if we do not set standards in the first place. We know from answers to written questions—after my own experience, I have asked about the loss of tests—that the Government do not actually set standards for most of these contracts.
In outsourcing test and trace, the Government have broken every procurement rule that they impose on councils and other parts of the public sector. They should stop shovelling money to their unaccountable and incompetent friends, work with established public health directors and public health systems, and be serious about what works to slow the reproduction rate by up to a quarter.
I would like to make three brief points in support of the motion. First, as I mentioned to the Minister, I have direct experience from Reading and Woodley that supports the motion. Residents have recently been sent as far as south Wales—to the constituency of my hon. Friend Beth Winter, in fact, which is a six-hour round trip from Reading. To make matters worse, we were promised a new testing centre, which has not arrived. This is in a university town, which obviously is particularly at risk. Ministers promised that students would have to travel no further than 1.5 miles for a test.
I will not, I am afraid, because of the time pressure.
I have reported these matters to the Universities Minister, who is trying to help, but the current system means that she is unable to move quickly.
Secondly, we know that a local approach to contact tracing works. We have heard this afternoon that evidence from around the country, including Wales, and around the world clearly demonstrates that local systems work. Their tracing rates for contacts of those infected are far higher than that of the national outsourced system.
Thirdly and crucially, there is no time to lose. We must take action now if we are to have any chance of stemming the rising tide of infections. Once up and running, a local tracing scheme could play an important part in keeping the virus under control until we have a vaccine and more effective treatments.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the issue of track and trace. I and other Opposition Members are rightly furious at the amount of money being spent on private companies that could have been invested in our own NHS and in local public authority systems.
This issue is of huge interest to my constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields. More than 100 people have written to tell me about where it has gone wrong with testing and tracing, and more than 700 people have signed my joint letter with my hon. Friends the Members for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), asking for a permanent testing centre in Wandsworth borough. Deloitte has been sent to find one, but it cannot find a place, so we do not have one; we rely on the Army to pop up every now and again. One mother was left in a car park, having to travel to another testing centre. She could not find a QR code on her app. The testing centre was almost empty, but she was not able to go in.
The Minister talked about a spine and ribs, and the whole system working together. We have a spine in this country: it is the NHS. It is a national health system. We should have used that from the start rather than spending £12 billion on systems that have entirely failed us. SAGE has now said that track and trace had a minimal effect on stopping the virus, but it should have been the core of our reaction and our action to stop the virus.
The existing privately outsourced system has failed. We have no permanent testing area in Wandsworth—will the Minister meet me to talk about that? My constituents have told me it is not working; local councils have told the Government that it is not working; and now scientists are telling the Government it is not working. It is time to give Serco a reboot; in fact, it is time to give Serco the boot. I ask the Minister to trust our local authorities and give them the contract for testing and tracing.
Thanks very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. You had signalled to me that you were not going to call me, so I am a bit surprised.
To allow time for the Front-Bench speeches, I will briefly continue the Serco theme. I am concerned to hear that Serco got a contract without any competitive tendering. My real concern is that last year both Serco and the Home Office argued in court—sadly, they were successful—that because Serco was a private contractor delivering a public service, it was exempt from the Human Rights Act. To give Serco a contract like test and tracing, with all that could happen with data, and for it to be exempt from the Human Rights Act, is very dangerous territory for the Government.
It has been said before that Serco has now subcontracted to 29 other companies, including those that have failed on HMRC contracts and in other places. That is of real concern. There is a lack of scrutiny here and I will be supporting the motion.
Our country faces an unprecedented health crisis as we battle covid-19. No Government could be expected to get everything right first time, but a competent Government would learn as they go along, recognise their mistakes and put them right. Tragically for our country, this Government’s incompetence continues to put lives and livelihoods at risk. I am grateful to the Members who have detailed that failure up and down the country—there were too many on the Opposition Benches to name them individually, but was it not notable how few Conservative MPs came to speak in defence of the Government’s record of failure?
A second spike in infections was never inevitable, and nor were the restrictions and lockdowns that are now necessary to consign it. They are the result of this Government’s failure to control the spread of the virus. There are two reasons why the Government keep getting it wrong: the first is their urge to over-centralise control, so that they fail to use the experience and expertise on the frontline; the second is their dogmatic urge to marketise everything, bypassing procurement rules to hand out multibillion-pound contracts to Conservative party cronies who lack the skills to do the job. That is how they got it wrong on PPE distribution, on testing, on shielding and on contact tracing. They keep repeating the same mistakes because they refuse to listen.
I have been listening to council leaders since the start of the pandemic. As far back as April, they told me that the Government were not listening to them about contact tracing, even though local government is where the country’s experts work. Public health directors and their teams have years of experience of mapping how infections spread, contacting those at risk and containing the spread. They know how their local community moves around, they know where the transmission hotspots are and they know how to communicate best with their local communities on how to keep safe. The expertise exists up and down the country, but the Government chose to ignore it.
Instead, the Government wasted months and millions of pounds on the shambolic development of an app on the Isle of Wight that never worked. They spent more than £11 billion on outsourced contracts and an army of management consultants, including Serco, whose contact-tracing system SAGE now tells us needs a major overhaul because of its
“relatively low levels of engagement” and
They spent £11 billion on that. And as we have heard this evening, some Boston Consulting Group managers are paid the equivalent of annual salaries of £1.5 million for their role in this Government failure. It is a disgrace.
The Government knew that they could not open up society or the economy safely without a functioning track and trace system. Without it, a second spike and a second lockdown became inevitable. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet chased the headlines rather than chasing down the virus, and we have ended up where we are today. The only thing this Government are world beaters in is incompetence. Nineteen of the 20 areas that have been in local lockdowns for more than two months have seen infection rates rise, not fall, because contact tracing is not working. We all have constituents who have tested positive telling us they are contacted only towards the end of their period of self-isolation, when it is too late to stop their contacts spreading the infection. That is why the R is rising.
Without a functioning track and trace system, the Government’s tiered system of restrictions is too weak to stop the virus spreading, but severe enough to cause economic harm. They have managed to find a way to lose on both fronts: damaging the economy, but without fully protecting the public. The answers are there if only the Government would listen. We have already heard how a locally led tracing system contacts over 97% of affected people in Cumbria, while the Government’s failing national system contacts barely two in five people in Slough.
The way to fix track and trace is to put the experts on the frontline in charge of public and private partnerships. We cannot let this Government’s blinkered over-centralising dogma stand in the way of public health. This is a great country and we can revive the economy after the pandemic, but we cannot revive the dead. This Government’s incompetence is lethal. We need them to get a grip, recognise that they have failed, and set free those who are best placed to fix contact tracing and stop the virus spreading in every community up and down the land.
It is a pleasure to close this debate on behalf of the Government, and I would like to thank all hon. and right hon. Members across the House for their varied and considered contributions this afternoon. NHS Test and Trace is one of the strongest weapons in our armoury in this fight against coronavirus. In the last seven days alone, we have processed more than 1.8 million tests, with 219,000 just yesterday. That helps us to break chains of transmission through testing, contact tracing and outbreak management in an end-to-end service to help to prevent the spread of the virus, protect local communities and save lives and livelihoods. As we have heard today, it is both a national and a local operation, with close working already taking place with local authorities. Like others here, I would like to pay tribute to those local authority leaders and directors of public health who have been in the heart of their communities helping to inform both those important strands.
If I may, I will take a moment to reflect on some advances. We have built the largest diagnostic network in British history. Has it been seamless? No. Are we getting there? Yes, absolutely. It is developing all the time.
I am afraid that time is short, so I will continue if I may.
The network is developing all the time, and at the moment includes five major Lighthouse laboratories, 96 NHS labs across 29 pathology networks, and over 500 testing sites. This is a tremendous undertaking in such a short period, and in a period of national crisis. We are doing more testing per head than almost any other major nation. Yesterday, capacity sat at more than 344,000, and we are expanding capacity further to meet a target of half a million tests a day by the end of October. This will include our NHS labs going even further to reach 100,000 tests a day. More labs are joining the network, and we are investing in new technology to process results faster. We are also automating parts of the process, installing new machines and hiring more permanent staff.
May I make a simple suggestion? It would be really helpful to the vast majority of people who are waiting for tests if there was a simple means of them being able to track where their test had got to, just as happens with Amazon and many thousands of other companies in this country. It would also save vast amounts of time for the company.
I will take that suggestion back. We have listened to a lot of what has been said today, and there has been a lot of constructive feedback. I just want to let Matt Rodda know that we are going to be opening a testing site on the campus in Reading next week.
As many have said, the work that we are doing on test and trace is absolutely critical. My hon. Friend Dr Mullan, who is a doctor himself and one of the many Conservative MPs who work in the health service, made a superb contribution using his experience of the system. He rightly pointed out that the vocal comparisons made at the outset of the pandemic with other European nations have suddenly faded away now that the UK is testing more per capita than those same nations. He encouraged us to be realistic about the capacity of the public sector and talked about the challenges of making things happen in practice, rather than simply lecturing from the sidelines about theoretical magic bullets.
Mr Dhesi said that we must test, test, test, and we are. As I mentioned, we hope to be able to do 500,000 tests a day by the end of this month. On the points that he raised about the Slough testing centre, it is critical to underline that people must make sure they have booked their appointment before they arrive on foot or by car. I understand that that test centre is still accessible by both methods.
My hon. Friend Ben Everitt talked about the huge role that his town has played in the national effort, from the initial quarantine of British citizens from Wuhan to the incredible Lighthouse project that is employing robotics to boost our testing capacity. We are grateful for that contribution at this time of crisis. As he said, from vaccines to ventilators, medication to PPE, all have been produced at scale very quickly by the private sector, and British companies have achieved tremendous things.
I welcome those Opposition Members who recognised the challenges that we face as a Government and who made constructive contributions, highlighting genuine concerns from constituents. We are working through some of those concerns. However, I share the regret of my hon. Friend Steve Brine, who pointed out that the era of constructive opposition from Labour Front Benchers appears this week to be over. It is important in this public health crisis that we reflect on criticism and try very hard to improve. However, this afternoon, they have sought to divide local from national, public from private, UK nation from UK nation, and to undermine public confidence in the system for their own political ends. That is a matter of deep regret for us all.
We recognise that contract tracing needs to reach as many people as possible and we are working hard to make sure that that happens, but this is about partnership, with a national framework and local support. Indeed, we are rolling out that strengthened partnership to more local authorities. We also now have the covid-19 app, downloaded over 17 million times in England and Wales, identifying contacts with those who might have tested positive for the virus, including people you might not know. Work is ongoing to make the Scottish app interoperable.
It of course remains critical that everyone does their bit and follows the rules—hands, face and space, and self-isolating where necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. That is why on
Alongside that, we have set out a series of tougher enforcement measures, targeting those who repeatedly flout the rules, including fines of up to £10,000, but testing and tracing is only one of our lines of defence, so I reinforce once again: if you have symptoms, you must self-isolate in line with public guidance and get a test. Even if you are feeling well, wash your hands regularly, wear a face covering in confined spaces and follow the 2 metre rule on social distancing, because it is these little things that can make a big difference.
In conclusion, we are entering a new and crucial phase of our fight against coronavirus, where the number of cases is rising and we can see that once again, the virus is spreading among the elderly and vulnerable. But we are also in a very different position as a nation from where we were when this virus first hit our shores. We have better data, better treatments and the testing and contact tracing that will be instrumental in getting the virus under control. There is a genuine partnership approach—a national framework with tremendous local support—and I commend the amendment to the House.
During the Division, Front Benchers must leave via the door in front. Everybody else must leave via the door behind me—socially distanced, please.
Question put (
The House divided: Ayes 258, Noes 338.
Question accordingly negatived.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Question put forthwith (
Question agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to (
That this House notes the consistently high performance of local contact tracing systems working in conjunction with NHS Test and Trace; welcomes the huge expansion of testing to a capacity of over 340,000 tests a day; applauds the efforts of all involved in testing and contact tracing both at a national and local level; recognises that 650,000 people have now been asked to isolate thanks to the work of NHS Test and Trace, and supports the Government’s efforts to expand testing and tracing yet further.