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Young Opposition MPs Tell Matt Hancock: Stop Pointing The Finger Over Covid And Fix Your "Unforgivable" Test and Trace Problems

Young MPs have warned Matt Hancock to stop pointing the finger over an increase in Covid cases (Credit: PA)

7 min read

Younger opposition MPs have warned the government to stop pointing the finger of blame over a spike in Covid-19 cases, as latest figures revealed its test and trace service reached less than half of close contacts.

Pressure is mounting on Matt Hancock to fix a catalogue of failings in the service, which saw people sick with coronavirus symptoms directed to test sites hundreds of miles from their homes. 

Others were unable to access a test at all, despite the health secretary urging anyone with a fever, continuous cough or change to their sense of smell or taste to get tested in a bid to head off a potential second wave of the virus.

On Tuesday, Mr Hancock blamed a significant uptick in cases and increased pressure on the system partly on "socialising by people in their 20s and 30s", as he imposed tougher restrictions in Bolton, Greater Manchester.

But younger MPs have told PoliticsHome the government has work to do to "regain the trust" of the very people they are trying to reach, with many having lost faith in ministers after a series of U-turns and "bad decisions".

"The first thing I think we could start with is setting a proper example," said Labour's Apsana Begum.

"When young people and everybody in the country look at politicians, they judge us in terms of our integrity.  Since I returned to parliament at the start of this week, I have seen hardly any social distancing, or wearing of masks. 

"And while masks aren't required within the parliamentary estate, when people are unable to distance adequately you would hope there may be extra precautions taken.

"If even in our own behaviour as politicians we are not setting a proper example, how then can we expect there to be a higher level of compliance across country?"

The 30-year-old, who entered the Commons for the first time after December's election, said the health secretary's "don't kill granny" appeal to young people was misjudged.

"To start with the whole blaming and scapegoating of young people with that comment, I think the tone of it was wrong, especially when so many people have already lost grandparents as a result of this crisis," she added.

"It's wrong to single out young people when the bigger picture shows there are problems with compliance overall.  The evidence does not suggest young people are the least compliant - just that they have the highest number of new cases.

"We have seen images of illegal raves and street parties, but this stereotyping and taking one or two examples and generalising is wrong."

The row comes after the latest official NHS figures reveal the lowest weekly percentage of close contacts were reached and told to self-isolate since test and trace was launched in England.

And analysis of the data shows it is likely tracers actually spoke to less than half of the people who came into contact with those who tested positive between 27 August and 2 September.

The target as set out by the government’s SAGE advisory board is they must hit 80% “for a system to be effective”.

Poplar and Limehouse MP Ms Begum said she wants to see more targeted communications from ministers aimed speficially at young people, modelled on New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who held a special press conference for children during the peak of the pandemic. 

"If there are specific messages for young people, it needs to be targeted in a way to support them to comply," she added.

"As a younger MP, since entering parliament I can now see how clearly that world is detached from an average young person's life. The tone, the language used, the customs and traditions mean nothing to many young people. That gap needs to be bridged."

Her backbench colleague, Pontypridd MP Alex Davies-Jones, said the message also needs to be simplified. 

"It's not just young adults, it's adults of all ages who are not following guidelines, but I think that's because the guidelines have become so confusing," she told PoliticsHome.

"People are getting their information from different sources and media outlets and are getting lost in the guidance of what you can do where, when and who with.  

"Because it's become so complex, people think they can do what they like as long as they're careful and wash their hands.

"And what's frustrating me now is the government is blaming younger people for spreading it - and the 'don't kill your gran' message really isn't helping. They're blaming people for getting too many tests.  They're blaming everyone except themselves."

Statistics released on Thursday morning show 9,864 Brits tested positive for Covid-19 last week, with 8,908 cases transferred to NHS Test and Trace.

Of those only 7,367 were reached, and just 6,044 gave their details to contact tracers - 67% of cases.

From those individuals 32,359 close contacts were identified, but only 69.2% of them were reached, down from 91.1% in the scheme’s first week of operation.

If those who were not reached or did not provide details came into contact with roughly the same amount of people as those who did provide details, then that is an overall rate of just 47% of contacts reached.

And even if they came into contact with far fewer people - which could be why they chose not to speak to tracers - then that overall figure would not be higher than 60%, still far lower than SAGE’s target.

The NHS says this is because many more cases are being classified as "non-complex cases" - which are handled online or by call centres - rather than “complex” - which are dealt with by local public health experts.

In non-complex cases only 61.3% of contacts are reached, whereas those deemed complex, either because they are in a health or care setting, a prison, critical national infrastructure or national security setting, it is close to 100%.

Former Lib Dem leadership contender Layla Moran, 37, told PoliticsHome the government was "trying to blame people for its own incompetence, when in fact its own actions have undermined the public’s trust".

“The ability to rapidly test and trace at scale is essential if we are to bring the pandemic under control and save lives in a second wave," she added. 

"It is quite frankly unforgivable that eight months into the pandemic, we still do not have a functioning testing and tracing system in place in England."

Mr Hancock wrongly upbraided shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth for suggesting in the Commons on Tuesday less than 70% of contacts are reached and being asked to self-isolate.

Fact-checking service FullFact since backed the Labour frontbencher up, saying his assessment was correct.

The health secretary also disagreed with Labour MP Sam Tarry when he said NHS Test and Trace was “well off that target” of 80% in a Commons debate last week.

The cabinet minister said the previous week’s data “show that 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate where contact details were provided”. 

But that doesn’t take into account of those people who did not provide the tracers with contact details, and who can still be spreading the disease.

There is also serious regional disparity in how well the system is functioning, with just 42% of contacts in “non-complex” cases reached in Bradford, the lowest proportion for any local authority area in England.

In Peterborough it is just 46% while Blackburn with Darwen is running at 48%, and for Kirklees and Nottingham the figure is 49%.

Despite that Baroness Dido Harding, who set up NHS Test and Trace and is interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, said the system is working.

“Every week we consistently reach the majority of people testing positive and their contacts,” she said.

"We have now reached almost 360,000 people who may be at risk of unknowingly passing on the virus, helping to curb its spread.”

But Mr Hancock warned the public “should not and must not go and use a test that somebody else who needs it should be using” if they do not have Covid-19 symptoms.

“With this very sharp rise we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks of people coming forward for tests when they are not eligible that is something that we’re having to look at," the health secretary told the Commons on Thursday.

“The key message to constituents is that these tests are absolutely vital for people who have symptoms and therefore if you don’t have symptoms and haven’t been told by a clinician or by a local authority to get a test then you should not and must not go and use a test that somebody else who needs it should be using.”

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