Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 6:43 pm, 18th November 2020

As this dreadful pandemic continues week by week, we cannot allow ourselves for a moment to be desensitised by the numbers. In the last seven days alone, 2,909 people have died from covid-19 in the UK. Each one leaves behind grieving family and friends; my thoughts are with them. I pay tribute to everyone working in our NHS and social care, key workers in retail and distribution, postal workers, community organisations and many others working through the long, gruelling slog of coronavirus.

None of us debating coronavirus in this House is arguing to score points. The focus of this important debate, challenge and scrutiny is to save lives. That is important, because in the UK we are in the devastating situation of having both the worst coronavirus death rate in Europe and the deepest economic recession of any country in the G7. Scrutiny and accountability matter, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. Mark Eastwood highlighted the exhaustion and burn-out of NHS staff in his constituency, and the risk to NHS staffing levels. However, his neighbour, my hon. Friend Jon Trickett, gave him a clue about the reasons for that, with the impact of NHS cuts on people’s resilience and capability to cope with coronavirus.

My hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq raised the devastating impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and their lack of participation in vaccine trials, calling for urgent action to address that. My hon. Friend Feryal Clark highlighted the devastating impact on families with loved ones in care homes who are unable to visit them at present. My hon. Friend Paula Barker argued for the urgent need for action to tackle misinformation from fake news on social media. My hon. Friend Karin Smyth spoke powerfully, from her own experience, of NHS emergency planning. The hon. Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) both raised gaps in the Government’s provision of economic support in relation to coronavirus.

My hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle spoke about the woeful failure of Ministers to answer questions and inquiries from MPs, which is vital at this time. My hon. Friend Matt Rodda highlighted the urgent issue of access to testing for home care workers, and my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson spoke passionately about the national scrubs crisis and, again, the urgent need for Government action.

Today is a day on which the step change that we need to see from the Government is clear. The National Audit Office has delivered its report on pandemic procurement, and it makes for uncomfortable reading. At best, the findings expose shambolic incompetence, with documents missing and no clear trail of accountability. At worst, there may be deliberate attempts by the Government to withhold information and cover their tracks while wasting public money and awarding lucrative contracts to friends and donors. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the Government must seriously clean up their procurement act in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This debate is about covid, the many difficult challenges that it poses and how we as a country might overcome them. It is clear that the Government’s crony-riddled, incompetent approach to outsourcing vital public services has significantly undermined the response. Nowhere is the impact of that illustrated more clearly or worryingly than in contact tracing. It is as clear as day that the Government’s national contact tracing system is not working. Labour has brought concerns about that to the House many times, as the system has consistently failed to meet the 80% target required for it to be effective, and the performance trend in recent weeks has got worse, not better.

When the Government announced the newest lockdown, the Opposition urged them to take the time to fix the contact tracing system, but that has still not happened. Last week’s figures showed that the system was failing, as 40% of close contacts were not reached—half the proportion needed effectively to break the chain of transmission. Labour, along, I am sure, with everyone in the House, is unequivocally delighted about the promising news on vaccines, but the roll-outs will take some time, and in the short term there is no silver bullet. We still need an effective, localised contact tracing system. We also need urgent action to alleviate the devastating isolation of care home residents. Today, I met several care home providers, who spoke about the huge undertaking that rolling out visitor testing would mean for them, and expressed scepticism about the resources that the Government were offering to enable that roll-out from just 20 care homes at present to all within only a few weeks.

Across the country, people are sacrificing so much to do their part in beating coronavirus. The least they can expect is that the Government are doing everything that they can to fix it. Instead, little has changed over the past few weeks. The Government have not made any attempt to review their outsourced Serco and Sitel-led national system. They have not offered any more support to local communities, and they have not taken the practical steps they could take to improve the system and help it reach more people effectively.

The Government do not need to look far for practical examples of how to deliver a better system. They could look at the Welsh Labour Government’s localised, insourced contact tracing programme, which has reached close to 90% of contacts. It could look to local councils across England, from Preston to Peterborough, which are working hard to pick up the pieces of the contacts missed by the national system, despite not being resourced to anything like the levels needed.

This failure on contact tracing is not just hampering our response to the pandemic; it is having heartbreaking consequences. Families have lost loved ones, as people who did not know that they were at risk of having contracted coronavirus continued to circulate in the community because they had not been contacted and told to self-isolate. The sheer chaos of the system has also had deeply distressing impacts. For example, one family who tragically lost a father from coronavirus were telephoned multiple times by the national track and trace system. Contacts being traced are not just names in a database. They are real people with real lives, and members of a community.

There is also a spatial dimension to contact tracing. It is not only about speaking to individuals in isolation, but about identifying patterns of infection that may lead to workplaces or particular types of accommodation. Public health teams who are embedded in their communities, as well as being experienced in infection control, are well placed to do this work. Labour would trust those at the heart of a community to lead contact tracing, and it is not too late to change this. No one will be happier than Labour Members if the Government curb their instinct to outsource their covid response by default, trust and resource public servants to deliver, and stop handing public money to Tory party friends and donors. We urge them to do so, because what comes next matters.

As increasing good news of a vaccine emerges, we must trust the values of community and public service over profit, and harness the talents of the British people. We should use those values and talents to build a national vaccine system. We want to work constructively with the Government in the national interest, but that requires a clear change of direction: rejection of cronyism and commitment to public service. I hope that the Minister will set out today how she plans to clean up the Government’s covid contracts calamity once and for all.