Jonathan Ashworth has accused the government of “losing control” of the coronavirus pandemic and called on the Prime Minister to fix the country’s broken test and trace programme.
In an urgent question to parliament this afternoon, the Shadow Health Secretary said that testing shortages were stopping the government from getting the virus under control and were increasing the risk of a second national lockdown.
According to reports yesterday, there were no tests available in any of the UK’s ten worst Covid hotspots: Bolton, Salford, Bradford, Blackburn, Oldham, Preston, Pendle, Rochdale, Tameside and Manchester.
Commenting on the shortfalls, Ashworth told the Commons: “Over the weekend in Bolton, where infections are highest in the country, a mobile testing centre failed to turn up. Meanwhile, in Bury, hundreds queued for five hours for a test.”
“He [Matt Hancock] blames increased demand. But when tracing consistently fails to reach 80% of contacts, when less than 20% of those with symptoms self-isolate properly and there is a lack of financial security, infections rise.”
Last week the Prime Minister announced his new “Project Moonshot” programme to increase daily testing to ten million by early next year. The government has a current reported capacity of 375,000 but is only carrying out around 230,000 tests per day.
The Shadow Health Secretary added: “Extra demand on the system was inevitable. So why didn’t he use the summer to significantly expand NHS lab capacity and fix contact tracing?”
Hancock and Johnson have blamed the shortfall in tests on people asking for one when they do not need it. This is contrary to the apology issued by the director of test and trace, who reported a problem with processing at laboratories.
The government has seen a backlash in the press and from MPs over recent days as commentators and politicians have pointed out that the Health Secretary told the public several times in July to get a test “if in doubt”.
This latest intervention from the Shadow Health Secretary today also follows warnings from the TUC that 43% of UK workers are unable to afford to self-isolate because of the low rate of statutory sick pay offered in Britain – just £94.85 a week.
Responding to a reported backlog of 185,000 coronavirus tests, Ashworth added: “The Prime Minister promised us a 24-hour turnaround for results so what is the current backlog and what is the timeframe for clearing it?
“When will ill people no longer have to travel hundreds of miles for a test that should be available on their doorstep? When will pupils and teachers out of school get access to testing so they can get back to school? And when will NHS staff access regular testing so they can focus on their patients not be sat at home?
“The Prime Minister promised us whack-a-mole but instead his mallet is broken. The Secretary of State is losing control of this virus. He needs to fix testing now.”
The government this week introduced a new ‘rule of six‘, which has brought in an upper limit on the number of people you are allowed to meet with from outside your household in England.
The new restrictions were implemented after it was announced that the reproduction, or ‘R-rate’, of the coronavirus had risen significantly across the country, potentially reaching as high as 1.7 in some places.