Local Contact Tracing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:18 pm, 14th October 2020

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.