Dominic Cummings has undermined the most crucial public health advice in over 100 years, and Boris Johnson is dangerously irresponsible in standing by him. We are in the midst of a pandemic, grappling with a deadly virus that spreads with speed. We have no vaccine. Testing and tracing was abandoned mid-March and is only slowly being cranked up now.
Our more effective tool to suppress the virus in early April was the lockdown. Cummings was was well aware of that. He sits in on SAGE meetings, for goodness’ sake. To flagrantly disregard the rules is an insult to the millions of people who have made unprecedented sacrifices. Johnson should have given Cummings his marching orders, but he won’t. Defending his own political interest always trumps the national interest for this Tory leader.
It’s against this backdrop that Matt Hancock has finally launched NHS Test and Trace. The ‘track’ element seems to have been abandoned and the Hancock app put on the back burner – even though we were told it was absolutely vital to an effecting tracing regime.
Regular LabourList readers will know that I have long called for a functional testing and tracing regime as key to the safe easing of the lockdown. The government’s decision to abandon contact tracing in mid-March was a monumental error that left a huge gap in our defences against the virus. Last week, I wrote to Matt Hancock asking a series of questions about why this was allowed to happen.
Just ten people had died of Covid-19 when Public Health England stopped community testing back on March 12; today, with the launch of NHS Test and Trace two and a half months later, the official death toll is approaching 40,000 — and the real number is thought to be far higher. Those countries like Germany and South Korea that have invested early in this type of process have seen much lower death rates.
I don’t want us to stay in in lockdown forever, and I want to see the economy moving again, with businesses thriving and more children back in our schools. It’s important that this tracking and tracing system works and keeps people safe. And for it to work, it has to be speedy, because we know this deadly virus spreads quickly.
If you or a family member have symptoms, or you have been told to go into isolation, you want to know as soon as possible whether you have got this awful virus. People shouldn’t have to wait days on end to get their results. It’s why Labour this week has called for ministers to introduce a ‘Covid Test Guarantee’ to ensure that nobody will have to wait more than 24 hours to receive test results.
The system should also be scaled up further by rapidly increasing the amount of testing to at least a quarter of a million a day, and recruiting an army of over 50,000 contact tracers. And tracing should be locally-led and properly integrated with primary care.
GPs should be involved so they can monitor the health of their patients. Local government directors of public health and public health staff – alongside other key local government staff, such as environmental health officers who know their local patch – have years of experience in contact tracing and case finding. They must be fully mobilised to spearhead tracing as part of this system.
It also means giving people the financial security to isolate. That means decent sick pay from day one and even help with accommodation if appropriate. Other countries have offered those who need to isolate hotel rooms, and we should do the same.
The most important thing to make sure the system works is public confidence in it, to help drive cooperation. We need everyone asked to cooperate fully with NHS Test and Trace’s stay at home instructions to keep all of us safe. The very last thing we need at this stage of the pandemic is for people to copy the actions of Cummings, and ministerial endorsement of it, and break the quarantine laws when they are asked to isolate under the new tracing system.
I know how difficult the last few months have been. My inbox this week has been filled with people writing to me to share their anger and disgust at Cummings’ double standards. Our constituents have been unable to see their families, with some people having to make agonising decisions or being unable to say goodbye to their loved ones because they followed the rules. They put the nation before themselves. It remains clear that there is still one rule for Johnson’s elite friends and another for the rest of us.