Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth is urging government ministers to use the four-week coronavirus lockdown in England, expected to start on Thursday, to improve the test and trace system that has been beset by problems during the crisis.
The Prime Minister is set to deliver a statement in the House of Commons this afternoon updating MPs on Covid-19 and plans for tough national restrictions that will see non-essential retail and hospitality shut for four weeks in England.
Labour will respond by calling on the government to put in place regular testing programmes that would ensure key workers and those most at risk of Covid-19 infection are able to access new, rapid turnaround saliva tests.
The Shadow Health Secretary said: “Coronavirus is growing with ferocity and urgent action is needed to bring the R below 1 nationwide which is why Labour urged Boris Johnson to use the opportunity of the half term holiday for a time limited circuit break.
“This didn’t happen, and test and trace have been overwhelmed. Controlling Covid-19 depends on fixing tracing, ensuring the quick turnaround of tests and introducing regular, weekly testing to identify the 70% of carriers who may not have symptoms but can still spread the virus.”
Although Boris Johnson promised on Saturday that rapid turnaround saliva tests will be available, The Guardian has reported that they are not approved for the public to interpret themselves without an expert’s help and will not offer results in 15 minutes.
The rapid Innova tests bought by the UK government are reportedly not for people without coronavirus symptoms, but intended for those already symptomatic, and look like a pregnancy test but are designed to be read by a health professional.
“Ramped up community testing is vital to help protect jobs and restore confidence in businesses and the economy, and to keep workers, their families and communities safe by identifying those who may be carrying the virus without symptoms,” Labour has said.
“The plan to roll out strategic mass testing would give a clear, coherent roadmap for the next phase of containing the virus. Using saliva testing would also mean the process is quicker and more comfortable than the PCR test used in the current test and trace set-up.”
The opposition party intends to make the case for regular, weekly, saliva-based testing of high-risk workers such as frontline NHS staff, plus those in education, transport, retail and hospitality, and of at-risk groups living in areas with the highest infection rates.
Ashworth added: “We have seen rapid saliva tests used effectively in UK universities. The government has no excuse to delay their introduction across the country and we’re calling on ministers to roll out these testing innovations now.”
He encouraged Johnson not to “waste the time his late lockdown buys him” and instead put “local public health experts in control, instigate retrospective contact tracing and expand mass testing using the saliva based testing innovations our universities have developed”.
Labour will also demand that the government fix the other part of the system, contact tracing, which has seen record lows in recent weeks. It was only able to reach 59.6% of coronavirus “close contacts” in England between October 8th and 14th.
Experts have said 80% of close contacts must be reached if the contact tracing system is to be effective. The government has pressed ahead with the involvement of private firms, though they are consistently outperformed by local public health teams.