“Not so much test and trace, more like trace a test” – Ashworth’s full Covid-19 speech

Jon Ashworth

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth this morning in response to Matt Hancock’s Covid-19 statement:

Capital investment for 25 A&Es will be welcome. On the piloting of 111 to triage ahead of A&E, given inequalities in accessing healthcare for the poorest and disadvantaged, how will he ensure this doesn’t worsen inequalities? If this leads to greater demands on primary care, will GPs be given extra resources as a consequence?

The NHS is facing a likely second spike, winter pressures, and a monumental backlog in non-Covid care. We have four million people on the waiting list and 83,000 people waiting beyond 12 months for treatment. Last month 2,535 people were waiting over two months to start cancer treatment.

The Chancellor promised to give the NHS “whatever it needs”. Does that promise still stand? Will the NHS get the funding it now needs to tackle the growing backlog in non-Covid care? On social care: Can he guarantee care homes won’t face the same shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) they faced at the start of the pandemic? Does he accept that restrictions on family visits causes huge harm to residents? Does he rule out re-imposing nationwide restrictions on family visits?

Back in May he stood at that despatch box and told this house: “That everyone aged five and over with symptoms is now eligible for a test… Anyone with a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss of, or change in, their sense of taste or smell can book a test… We have now got testing for all” Yet four months later, for the British people it has become not so much test and trace, more like trace a test.

At just the point when many fear we are on the cusp of a deadly second spike, the Prime Minister admits we don’t have enough capacity. And rather than fixing testing, the Secretary of State is restricting testing. In the exchanges on Tuesday, 33 members from all sides put to him examples of testing failures. He responded with local constituency figures, it’s a neat Commons debating trick and well done to the special advisor who produced the briefing.

But that’s little comfort to the 25,000 teaching staff isolating many of whom need testing, to the NHS staff off work, to the ill people now presenting at A&Es because they can’t get a test or to the parents with poorly children off school and themselves sick with worry because there is no testing available.

He was warned that infections would rise if tracing wasn’t effective and people were not given adequate support to isolate. And here we are with almost 4,000 new cases, the highest since May. Who will be the priority for a test under his rationing plans? Care England say weekly testing of all care home staff is still not happening, when will he guarantee it? What about people living in areas of restriction? Will testing be available? What is his plan for universities returning over the next fortnight? In July he pledged 150,000 asymptomatic tests per day by September. Has that commitment now been abandoned?

But we shouldn’t be in this mess. Rather than increase testing over the summer, pillar 1 and 2 lab capacity remained broadly flat. He’s now setting up more commercial lighthouse labs, but why not instead invest in the 44 NHS labs and make better use of university labs? We know there are staff shortages across these labs because the Prime Minister wrote to university vice chancellors begging for staff to return.

There are huge numbers of voided tests across these commercial labs including 35,000 voids at the Randox lab through August. Today’s testing stats show turn around times for testing in these labs is getting longer again. Serco is failing to trace 80% of contacts. At what point will he strip poor-performing outsourcing firms of their lucrative public sector contracts? When testing breaks down, case finding breaks down, isolation breaks down and we lose control of the virus.

The British people made great sacrifices, they missed family celebrations, many couldn’t say their final goodbye to loved ones at funerals. People honoured their side of the bargain. In return, government was supposed to deliver testing to drive the virus down. Ministers failed. And now we have vast swathes of the country, millions of people under restrictions. The Prime Minister yesterday said a second lockdown would be disastrous. Obviously, we all want to avoid lockdown. Is he completely ruling out a second short national lockdown in all circumstances?

The British public simply deserves clarity. But with infections rising at this pace, it’s not clear what the actual strategy of the government now is. It’s all very well talking about camel humps and moon shots. We need a plan to fully suppress this virus. Its urgent ministers now fix testing, tracing and isolation to avoid further restrictions, otherwise, we face a very bleak winter indeed.

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