Local Contact Tracing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:38 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth 6:38 pm, 14th October 2020

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.