Our test-and-trace system is a long way off “world-beating”, Prime Minister

Justin Madders
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

As we have seen an easing of lockdown measures, a reduction in hospital admissions and the end of the government’s daily press conferences, we might have expected there to be a drop in coronavirus-related news. But the reality is very different. There has been an uptick in cases and more local restrictions – it seems every day something comes out which brings big questions about the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Last week, ministers announced late at night that parts of the North West and Yorkshire were facing new restrictions on household visits following concern over rising infections in parts of these areas. The way in which this was announced combined the worst elements of other recent government announcements. It followed the pattern previously set by confused, mixed messaging over face masks, and the chaos brought about by the timing of the Spain quarantine decision. The communication the announcement was so poor that even Matt Hancock wasn’t able to answer questions on the decisions live on TV.

It is little wonder that a new study has shown that less than half of people in England now understand the lockdown rules. One of the most basic yet most important elements of the fight against coronavirus is clear and consistent messaging from government. It is a basic test that they are clearly failing. This is why today Keir Starmer has called for the government to get a grip on their communications, restart government press conferences, and end dangerous, contradictory briefings to the media. Ministers cannot afford to continue to get this wrong.

There has been an increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases in the last few weeks, which does coincide with the relaxation of lockdown restrictions. The government’s own regulations relaxing the rules explicitly stated that this was a risk – but this risk could have been mitigated by a nationally effective testing and tracing regime. The Serco-run project is still a long way off the “world-beating” system promised by Boris Johnson by the start of June, and in some aspects is actually getting worse.

The number of people who test positive who are contacted within 24 hours has slipped down to 72%, while only 61% of non-complex coronavirus “close contacts” are being reached and asked to self-isolate. Non-complex cases are the ones dealt with by outsourcing firms Serco and Sitel. A workable app may go some way to resolving this, but as more and more countries launch theirs, ours is nowhere to be seen. The fact that councils are now setting up their own contact tracing systems shows what a monumental misjudgement it has been to place so much faith in the private sector.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has led to many more opportunities for private companies to step in and win government contracts. But the urgency of the situation has allowed the government to sidestep the usual procurement rules with concerning results. The shambolic handling of personal protective equipment initially led to a Wild West-style gold rush, where companies with seemingly no track record in this field were handed lucrative contracts.

There must be a very bright light shined on these contracts. Last month, Rachel Reeves and I asked the National Audit Office to investigate. It’s not just PPE where this is happening: a number of companies with links to the Tories have been handed lucrative contracts by the Cabinet Office, particularly in areas to do with public messaging. Given the shambolic nature of government communications recently, it doesn’t seem that they were chosen on the basis of competence.

To effectively combat local outbreaks, local councils must have the resources and information they need to be able to respond quickly – and this is still some way off where it needs to be. It isn’t good enough. Now is the time to fix these problems and drive down cases. Test and trace is absolutely vital to our strategy in combatting the virus, and ministers must get a grip of the problems now to avoid a long and challenging winter.

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