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Matt Hancock Has Been Hammered By Labour MPs Over Testing Failures After Figures Showed Plummeting Turnaround Times

Matt Hancock was criticised over testing failures in the House of Commons (PA)

5 min read

Labour has said the health secretary Matt Hancock "has failed" to deliver effective testing and tracing, after new figures showed coronavirus cases spiking while turnaround times plummeted.

Hancock was severely criticised by MPs after statistics revealed just 33% of in-person test results were returned within 24 hours, months after Boris Johnson said he wanted every one of them to come back within a day.

Delivering a statement in the Commons the Cabinet minister insisted capacity is "at record levels”, but shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said: "When testing breaks down case-finding breaks down, isolation breaks down and we lose control of this virus.

"The British people made great sacrifices, they missed family celebrations, they couldn't say their final goodbyes to loved ones at funerals, but the British people honoured their side of the bargain.

"In return, the government was supposed to deliver effective testing and tracing. The government failed and we have vast swathes of the country under restrictions."

Mr Hancock admitted “there's a challenge in testing” but added: "The challenge is that demand has gone up faster. And they say on the other side 'no it's not' but they can't defy the facts.

"And the most important thing for anybody across the country to hear from all their elected representatives is if they are interested in helping this country get through this pandemic [...] if you have symptoms, get a test, if you don't have symptoms please do not come forward to get a test unless you're specifically asked.”

But senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper raised the case of a constituent who works in the NHS, but who could not get a test for her husband, keeping her away from the front-line.

"She's since developed symptoms herself.” the ex-minister said. “Neither of them has been tested, neither of them is therefore in the tracing system so there's no follow-up to prevent other people getting the virus as well.

"This isn't just chaotic, it is dangerous.

"The government knew there would be a huge increase in demand for testing when the schools went back and when he was encouraging people to go back to work, yet since mid-July testing capacity has only gone up by 10% and the number of cases has gone up by 400%."

And Conservative MP Chris Green said positive Covid-19 cases are "rocketing up" in his Bolton constituency and warned it is having a "devastating impact on people's physical and mental health", meanwhile “the testing system is failing to deliver”.

Mr Matt Hancock said almost 7,000 tests have been added to the area in the last week, adding: "The situation in Bolton is very difficult, with over 200 cases per 100,000 population, the highest in the country by a long, long way and we've got a lot of work to do to get the situation under control in Bolton.”

Mr Ashworth also asked if "poor-performing outsourcing firms" would be stripped of NHS testing contracts.

He added: "There are still problems in these commercial labs, aren't there? There are huge numbers of voided tests across the commercial labs.

"Randox had 35,000 voided tests across August and today's stats show test turnaround times again for testing in these labs getting longer.

"Serco is still failing to trace 80% of contacts. At what point will he step in and strip poor-performing outsourcing firms of their lucrative public sector contracts?”

In response Mr Hancock accused his opposite number having “played this divisive card which doesn’t suit him at all”, saying all he cares about “is a good service for the people we serve”.

But Labour’s Stella Creasy pressed the issue, asking “if there is a financial penalty” written into the contracts of the private companies involved in running the track and test system such as Serco, McKinsey, Deloitte and Randox, adding: “Or is it only our constituents who will pay the price for this mess?”

In response Mr Hancock replied: "It's the task of the companies that she mentioned and many more, and of the British Armed Forces, and of the NHS, and of the department and Public Health England and the many many local councils including her own to get as much capacity as possible.”

It comes after the number of positive coronavirus tests hit its highest figure since NHS Test and Trace launched, as new stats revealed turnaround times have hit a new low.

Between 3 and 9 September 18,371 people caught Covid-19, an increase of 75% in positive cases on the previous week, and up 167% compared to the end of August.

The number of people being tested also increased by 27% in the most recent week, despite widespread capacity and processing issues.

The results came as Mr Hancock introduced new restrictions for the North East, with households banned from socialising, and a 10pm-5am curfew for pubs, hotel bars and restaurants. 

The official NHS figures show 15,526 people were transferred to their contract tracing system in the past seven days, a weekly increase of 74%, but more than three times as many people compared to the beginning of August.

And the number of people identified as close contacts of those who tested positive was 61,790 between 3 and 9 September, and increase of 255% since the start of last month.

But in better news of those contacts 73.9% were reached by contact tracers and told to self-isolate, up from 69.5% in the previous week.

However the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The percentage of test results received within 24 hours for in person tests notably decreased from the previous week. 

“The number received within 48 hours for home testing kits and satellite test centres also decreased, in the same time period.”

Overall the amount of in-person tests returned within 24 hours was just 33.3% - compared to 66.5% in the previous week.

And for home testing kits and satellite centres only 5.7% of results were received within 48 hours, compared to 11.5% in the previous week. 

Boris Johnson had pledged they would all be sent back to people in a day, and SAGE has warned shorter turnarounds are needed for Test and Trace to work effectively.

The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on June 3 he would get "all tests turned around within 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that".

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