Labour accuses government of “rewarding private sector failings” in test and trace

Andrew Kersley

Labour’s shadow health team railed against the failures of the Conservative government’s privatised coronavirus testing regime as MPs returned to parliament today.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons that the Test and Trace programme was now able to reach 84.3% of people who had been in contact with someone with Covid-19 and had contacted a total of 300,000 people.

But Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth and shadow health minister Justin Madders were critical of the programme, especially the involvement of private firms such as Serco that have only managed to contact 60% of those who have been in contact with people who tested positive for Covid-19.

During parliamentary questions to the Health Secretary, Madders said: “In some places the private companies involved in test and trace have been reaching less than half of the people they were supposed to, not the 80% that the Secretary of state has claimed.

“You don’t need an algorithm to work out that their performance when compared to public health teams is where test and trace is failing, so why then is the government rewarding private sector failings by extending those contracts?”

Responding to the question, Matt Hancock attacked critics of private test and trace contracts and said the Labour frontbench was “trying to divide people between public and private when everyone is just working hard together to control this virus”.

Later in the session, Ashworth said: “In order to avoid a second national lockdown, which we all want to avoid, an effective test and tracing regime is absolutely vital… [but] this system is not yet world-beating.”

“Throughout these questions he [Matt Hancock] has rejected criticisms of the private sector contracts and contractors who are involved in delivering this system.”

The MP for Leicester South also asked the Secretary of State to justify spending an undisclosed fee to get social media influencers, including Love Island stars, to promote the testing scheme.

“Wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on local public health teams to do door to door testing rather than to pay for so called influencers to big up test and trace on Instagram?”

Serco and Sitel, the two private firms hired to handle the national test and trace programme, are due to receive over £1bn for their work on the scheme. Serco receives 40% of its overall income from contracts running UK public services, according to The Justice Gap.

Earlier in the day, it was revealed by shadow mental health minister Rosena Allin-Khan that the Health Ministry had only met with NHS mental health trusts and other organisations twice during the first three months of lockdown, despite charities saying the pandemic and lockdown had caused a mental health crisis.

Whilst the Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously claimed he was in “regular contact” with mental health services, a Freedom Of Information request filed by Allin-Khan showed this had not been the case during the early lockdown.

Social care minister Helen Whateley declined to confirm or deny whether Matt Hancock was in attendance at either of these meetings.

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