Labour slams government as 48,000 Covid contacts not traced

Andrew Kersley

Jonathan Ashworth has slammed the government after analysis by Labour found that the error in the test and trace system meant as many as 48,000 people who had been in close contact with someone with coronavirus were not traced.

In a response to Matt Hancock’s Covid update to parliament this afternoon, the Shadow Health Secretary called for his counterpart to apologise for the error and said: “This isn’t just a shambles, it’s so much worse than that.”

Over 15,000 Covid cases went unpublished in the government’s daily reports and were not passed onto contact tracers and public health teams last week due to what the Prime Minister called a “computing issue”.

Ashworth told the Commons: “In recent weeks, we’ve had people told to travel hundreds of miles for a test. We’ve had hundreds of children out of school unable to get a test. We’ve had tracers sitting idle watching Netflix…

“And now, at one of the most crucial points in this pandemic, we learn that almost 16,000 positive cases went unreported for a week. That means as many as 48,000 contacts not traced and not isolated.

“Thousands of people blissfully unaware they’ve been exposed to Covid potentially spreading this deadly virus at a time when hospital admissions are increasing and we’re in the second wave. This isn’t just a shambles, it’s so much worse than that.

“And it gives me no comfort to say it, but it’s putting lives at risk and he should apologise when he responds. Now, no doubt, he will complain about my tone or say he won’t have any divisive talk, but people want answers.”

On failures of private contractors in the system, Ashworth added: “Surely now is the time to not renew Serco’s contract, and instead give responsibility and resources to NHS labs and local public health teams to deliver testing and tracing?”

Stella Creasy highlighted that there are no performance standards in place for private companies involved with the tracing programme, asked who takes responsibility for its failures and demanded: “Who is going to get our money back?”

The Health Secretary told the backbench Labour MP in response that “it is wrong… constantly to be picking on a small number of the many, many cogs in the wheel that we have of this system”.

He added: “She’s normally incredibly reasonable and sensible. I’d be very happy to ensure she gets a full briefing.”

Outsourcing firm Serco, which plays a key role in the UK’s contact tracing system, last month admitted that it only managed to reach 60% of those in contact with people who tested positive for Covid-19. It was responsible for a data breach in May.

Serco and Sitel, the two firms hired by the government to help run the national test and trace programme, are set to receive over £1bn for their work on the scheme. Serco receives 40% of its annual revenue from running UK public services.

The Shadow Health Secretary also used his contribution to highlight the impact of the error on local infection rates, as both areas currently not under local additional restrictions and others in lockdown seeing significant case increases.

According to official figures published on October 4th, Manchester’s weekly case average jumped from 238 per 100,000 people to 295 per 100,000. In rural Newark and Sherwood, the case average rose from 65 per 100,000 people to 73 per 100,000.

Keir Starmer called on Wednesday for an “urgent review into whether these local lockdowns are working in the way intended”, as he pointed out that of the 48 areas that have seen additional restrictions, only one has seen those measures removed.

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