Angela Rayner has accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” and failing to plan ahead after a surge in demand for Covid tests resulted in the Welsh government lending NHS England an additional four million.
Following an update from Boris Johnson on the government’s efforts to combat the pandemic to parliament this afternoon, the deputy Labour leader argued that “getting testing right remains the best way to avoid further restrictions”.
She welcomed an announcement from Johnson this week of guaranteed lateral flow tests for essential workers but pointed out that this will not begin until next week, adding: “Our essential services are buckling under the pressure right now.”
Johnson said in a press conference on Tuesday that from next week essential workers, such as those in the food processing sector and the Border Force, will be given daily lateral flow tests following weeks of disruption.
Demand for the tests surged as people tried to comply with new advice introduced shortly before Christmas to limit the spread of the more transmissible Omicron variant by ensuring that they do not have Covid before socialising.
Home delivery slots for lateral flow tests were unavailable on the gov.uk website by Thursday morning last week, and pharmacies also complained about an intermittent supply of lateral flow kits over the festive period.
The Welsh government subsequently agreed last week to loan four million more tests to the NHS in England, bringing the total the country has given England to ten million, as ministers sought to source supplies from around the world.
Rayner today asked why the Prime Minister had claimed, on December 13th, that there was no shortage of coronavirus tests. “The government has been asleep at the wheel,” she told parliament. “And the result is total shambles.
“I’m sure the Prime Minister will join me in thanking the Welsh Labour government for sharing four million tests with England. Thank goodness they had the foresight to plan ahead and secure enough tests for this period.”
The Prime Minister said on Tuesday that, while the weeks ahead would be “challenging”, there is a “substantial” level of immunity in the population and that the country could “ride out this Omicron wave” without the need for a lockdown.
But Rayner said today that the NHS is not “surfing but struggling to stay afloat”, despite the claim that the country could “ride out” the surge, and called for the Prime Minister to make a “frank assessment” of the state of the health service.
“Isn’t the truth that the health service went into this wave with the longest waiting lists on record and major staff shortages?” the deputy Labour leader asked Johnson.
“After a decade of Tory mismanagement, the NHS wasn’t prepared for Covid. It’s not just that the Conservatives didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining, they dismantled the roof and removed the floorboards.”
The Prime Minister told parliament during his statement this afternoon that “this government does not believe we need to shut down our country again” and claimed that his administration was instead “taking a balanced approach”.
Johnson informed MPs that he and ministers had met this morning and decided that the country would “stick with plan B for a further three weeks”. This includes advising people to work from home, requiring testing before going to “high-risk venues” and the use of face coverings in shops and on public transport.
Rayner said Labour “wholeheartedly” supported the decision, reminding MPs that the measures were only passed with the support of her party. “Labour will always act in the national interest and put public health before party politics,” she added.
The deputy leader reiterated Labour’s call for the Prime Minister to “finally” raise the level of statutory sick pay “so that people are no longer faced with the impossible choice of doing the right thing or feeding their family”.
Johnson also confirmed to parliament that from Friday morning pre-departure tests will no longer be required for people arriving in the country and the requirement to self-isolate on arrival until receipt of a negative PCR test will be lifted.