Local Contact Tracing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:17 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 4:17 pm, 14th October 2020

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.