“How on earth does he expect to hit his moonshot?” – Ashworth’s full Covid-19 response

Jon Ashworth

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth in parliament this morning.

Mr Speaker, we welcome the restrictions the government is imposing. In recent days cases have risen sharply and across all age groups. Hospital admissions are up around 70% since the low point in August. The Kings College Covid study estimates the R-value in England is at 1.2. Everything reasonable must be done for maximum suppression of this virus.

Everyone wants to avoid a second national lockdown. Lockdowns exact a heavy social and economic price on those already suffering from inequality. And on world suicide prevention day we must remember the mental health impact of lockdown.

Can I ask him again about schools: We have examples across the country of classes and year groups – including in Leicester – of hundreds, possibly thousands, of pupils starting the new term as they finished the last term, at home and not in education. Is it the policy of the government that if there are 1 or 2 positive cases in a year group that the whole year group is sent home for two weeks? And if so, are parents and carers eligible for sick pay and financial support?

We were promised a world-beating test, trace and isolate regime by now. I highlighted its performance in finding contacts in Tuesday’s figures. He said I had muddled my figures. FullFact said I was right and he was wrong. I will leave him to judge whether he wants to correct the record but I just want him to correct test and trace.

In one study, researchers found 75% of people with infections did not adhere to self-isolation. I know he’s piloting extra support but we need a system urgently so those who are low paid and in insecure work can isolate.

Which brings me to testing. There are many stories. In Bradford, a mum tried to get a test for her eight-year-old asthmatic son but was told to go to Scotland. Yesterday he was touring TV studios trying to dampen demand even though he previously told this House in July “if you have symptoms, if in doubt, get a test”.

So having encouraged these tests, with 8 million pupils return to schools, with thousands going back to workplaces, surely it was obvious there would be extra demand on the system. It’s not the fault of ill people asking for tests, it’s his fault not providing them. Again no apology from him today. Why didn’t he plan extra resource capacity to process tests?

So having failed to provide tests to all those who are ill, and of course, with the waiting list for diagnostics tests now at 1.2 million, the highest on record, he now wants to deliver 10 million tests a day – his so-called ‘Project Moonshot’.

I’ve long been pushing him for strategic mass testing. From the start the WHO told us ‘test, test, test’. But we are all fed up with big undelivered promises and ‘world-beaters.’ Mass testing is too important to become another failed project – it’s all well and good talking about moonshots and the Prime Minister telling us all we’ll be tested every morning. Even better would be simply delivering the extra testing needed now, not just headline figures.

So first of all, what is the timeline? The Prime Minister told the nation he wants this in place by the Spring. Though the chief scientific advisor pointed out its “completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen.” How quickly will the pilots in Salford and Southampton be assessed?

Secondly, what is the cost? According to the British Medical Journal £100 billion. Is this figure correct? If not, can he tell the House what estimate he has made of the cost of processing 10 million tests every day would be and how much has been allocated to his moonshot efforts?

Thirdly who will deliver it? What discussion has he had with universities like Leicester who are piloting LAMP-based saliva testing for all students? There are many smaller firms that are keen to engage with the government. Yet it’s reported that that agreements or understandings have already been signed with GSK, Serco, and G4S to deliver Project Moonshot? Is this correct? What procurement processes have been undertaken?

Fourthly who are the priorities? We’re still not testing the loved ones of care home residents who are desperate to see relatives. When will the government deliver routine testing of all frontline NHS staff? Mr Speaker, effective testing depends on quick turnaround and people need to access tests locally. It depends on expanded contact tracing and isolation.

Honesty about the risks of false positives must be built into the process. But this isn’t even happening now when capacity is supposed to be 175,000. Given the testing fiasco of recent days, how on earth does he expect to hit his moonshot in the future?

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