Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 4:31 pm, 18th November 2020

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate for the Opposition. It is an important debate, though a solemn one: 589 deaths of our countrymen and countrywomen were reported yesterday, having perished from this virus. The total official number of deaths from covid is now more than 50,000, but the real figure is likely to be much higher. Those are big numbers, but behind each number is a person and a grieving family. All our thoughts are with them.

It is important and appreciated that the Government continue to give Government time in this place for the consideration of covid. Often—we understand this—the Government need to act swiftly to tackle the virus, but it is crucial that we get parliamentary opportunities to scrutinise their actions. I hope that we find the Government in listening mode, because we could do much to improve the current response.

In that spirit, I turn first to test and trace. Test and trace is important for two reasons: first, it is our best weapon to break the chain of transmission, and secondly, it is the part of the process that the Government have the greatest control over. Of course, the behaviour of the public is paramount, and it is critical that we guide them as best we can, but eventually it becomes a matter of personal responsibility. Test and trace, however, we have direct control of—we have control over the implementation and the commissioning.

Let us start with the good news. We recognise and welcome the overall volume of capacity developed by the Government, which the Minister talked about. That was done from scratch, and it is a very good thing indeed. However, that is as far as the good news goes, because the rest of the system is simply not delivering.

I was concerned that the Minister talked about testing but did not talk about tracing or isolation, because the system is failing, not on my terms or on political barriers put up by me or my colleagues, but on the Government’s own terms. The Prime Minister promised test results within 24 hours by the end of June. The current figure is 37.6%. That is a failure on the Government’s own terms. I hope that the Postmaster General will say when the 100% target will be reached.

On tracing, the Government say that of those with the virus, 80% of their close contacts must be reached for the system to be effective. Last week, it was 60%. It has never been at 80%; it has bumped along, frankly, in the 50s and 60s throughout. For last week, that represents 126,000 people who ought to have self-isolated but did not, simply because they did not know that they were supposed to. Each of them is walking around unaware, working as usual, living as allowed by regulations, and in close contact with goodness knows how many people. Again, that is a failure on the Government’s own terms. Tomorrow, we will get the latest weekly figures. Do we expect performance to have reached that 80%? I do not. I raise this issue every day, whether in the Chamber, online, in the media or, frankly, to anyone who will listen. That is because the failure of the system is the root of our loss of control of this virus.

If this debate follows the patterns of previous ones, we will hear contributions from Government Back Benchers critical of the symptoms of that loss of control—damage to the economy, delayed or cancelled healthcare, restricted civil liberties. Those are all exceptionally important symptoms, but I cannot understand why we do not hear greater concerned scrutiny of the cause of the problems, which is the failing system. I hope that those Members will join us in pressing the Government to do better, not because of the politics—on this occasion, I could not care less about that, frankly—but because this is a hole beneath the water line when it comes to tackling the virus. Nothing will truly get better until this gets better.

The final weak link in the chain is about isolation. Even if all elements of the system over which the Government have direct control work flawlessly, the enterprise will fail if the person at the end of the process does not isolate when supposed to. The Prime Minister has bemoaned that issue previously, which I suspect is part of his attempts to shift the blame on to other people—'twas ever thus. In reality, however, even before the pandemic, too many people were just getting by on low wages and insecure work. People were in work but in poverty, and forced, hour by hour, to earn that poverty. Now they are being told to forego even that income in favour of sick pay. That might be the right thing to do to beat covid-19, but people do not know how to isolate and feed their family at the same time.

The Health and Social Care Secretary himself said that he could not live off statutory sick pay, and it took seven months until the £500 stipend came in. The Prime Minister thought that the stipend was weekly—it is not, and it is still not enough. Until we change the situation so that those who have least in our country, and who often work in frontline jobs where they are more likely to contract the virus, do not have to choose between the national effort and financial reality for their family, we will not get people isolating in the numbers we need.