Local Contact Tracing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:46 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 6:46 pm, 14th October 2020

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

“marginal impact”.

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.