Anneliese Dodds: "The test and trace failure isn’t just costing lives – it’s costing our economy too"
Anneliese Dodds, photographed by Baldo Sciacca
Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds is up against one of the most popular men in politics in Rishi Sunak – but she is determined to show Labour can be trusted on the economy. Kate Proctor caught up with one of Keir Starmer’s most senior figures in her home city of Oxford. Photography by Baldo Sciacca
Anneliese Dodds arrives at the Society Café in Oxford by bike, which is exactly how she got around the city when she first arrived as a student in the late 1990s. Her two young children have been dispatched to a half-term activity day earlier that morning. She says a warm hello to the café staff, orders a latte and begins our interview, entirely alone, no staff, launching straight into a denunciation of the economic havoc she says the government’s Covid-19 strategy is wreaking.
We’re looking out across the Oxford Union, which because of a rather dazzling red acer tree, is suggested as a nice place to take some pictures. Best not, she explains: they do things like invite the French far-right politician Marine Le Pen to debate there.
As a student, she was president of the Oxford University Student Union, which is an entirely different beast – a typical student-run group that exists to give members of the university a voice. It was the place where she was a student activist fighting tuition fees, running marches and delivering stump speeches.
Dodds is forthright, detailed, no-nonsense and eminently sensible. But this morning at least, she’d also like to give any kind of controversy at all a wide berth. This interview took place before the EHRC’s report into antisemitism in the Labour Party was published. Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the Party over his comments on the EHRC investigation into as this issue went to press.
Asked whether Dido Harding, the head of the government’s test and trace system should resign, Dodds says: “I don’t know.” She adds: “If that were to occur, but there was not [a] fundamental change in approach from government, it wouldn’t be solving the problem.”
On where Labour stands on tax rises, she says she is always up for discussing tax – but won’t say where they would want increases, only that the system under their party would be more progressive. She wants to preserve the shrinking tax base, not talk in hypotheticals about rises to the base or top rates.
She’s a bit more frank when invited to comment on Tory MPs Ben Bradley’s recent controversial remarks on social media, which linked free school meal vouchers to crack addicts and brothels, saying that they had been offensive and that she thought a previous generation of patrician Conservatives would be horrified at some of the language being used by their modern day counterparts.
Dodds says she wants to exist faction-free, which might explain how she’s worked under both Jeremy Corbyn as shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, and now Keir Starmer, who is depending on her to give out the message that Labour can be trusted with people’s money.
What Dodds is very clear on, and spends much of her time researching, is ways the test and trace system could be working more effectively, because of its direct impact on the country’s finances. Labour called for, but has so far ultimately failed in securing, a circuit break to try and reset the programme. The party wants far greater use of local contact tracers, those employed by local authorities, and to look abroad for inspiration.
Her analysis of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and Our World In Data shows that among economically advanced countries that rolled out extensive testing and tracing, many had a less dramatic hit to GDP than the UK.
The ten countries with the highest test per case ratios between April and June had an average decline in GDP in a twelve month period (Q2 2019-Q2 2020) of 9.4%. This compares to an average GDP decline of 14% for the ten countries with the lowest test per case ratios. In the top group, New Zealand had a test per case figure of 4372.3, and a decline of GDP of 12.4%. Australia’s was 1602.1 with a decline of 6.3%.
The UK only had a test per case ratio of 38.6 in those months, and its economy fell by 21.5% from Q2 2019 - 2020. Spain’s was 54 tests per positive case of the virus, and GDP also fell by 2%. Germany is in the middle of the table with an average tests per case figure of 74.1 and a GDP decline of 11.3.
Dodds claims the UK’s figures are an “international embarrassment”.
She says: “The government can’t stop bragging about how many billions it’s invested in a test and trace system that simply doesn’t work. This failure isn’t costing lives – it’s costing our economy too.
“We’re noticing that when we express concern around the current system and urge for change the Conservatives argue back ‘well this is a global crisis, it’s affecting everywhere’.
“But there are those examples where there has been a strong bounce back in growth, obviously a lot of the South East Asian countries have achieved that.
“I’m not going to suggest for example the Chinese approach would apply to other nations but if we look at South Korea for example, they are already back in the realm of economic operation much more similar to previously.
“The German case is quite interesting. Yes, they are having localized restrictions but they are able to operate in that much more fine grained manner because they have far better quality data on where the infections are.
“There’s no blockage of us doing that in the UK if we get that system working locally which we could do.”
So far the government has spent £12bn on test and trace, but this month the Government’s Sage committee said it wasn’t working, citing “relatively low levels of engagement with the system, coupled with testing delays and likely poor rates of adherence with self-isolation”.
One improvement suggested by Dodds could be sending a text message to people when they get their result that says they could be eligible for £500 in financial support if they are on low incomes, she hopes this will in turn assist with compliance.
Instead of placing the blame for the failings at Baroness Harding’s door, Dodds says: “I think this is a whole of government problem actually. We’ve had suggestions there might be a separate testing minister for example. The Conservative side said they might do it.”
She says the only option now is to devolve some of the system to local areas.
“The evidence is extremely clear on that,” she says. “Why are they only getting that in Tier 3. Why only do that when they’ve got this really high infection?”
A government spokesperson said: “The NHS Test and Trace system has built a testing capacity of 400,000 tests a day, from a starting point of 2,000 a day in March, its capacity is bigger per head than France, Germany, Italy and Spain and we have contacted over 1.1 million people and asked them to self-isolate. We need to improve in areas and we are very much focused on that, but we should be talking it up not down.”
Dodds faces a formidable opponent in Rishi Sunak, who in the summer was widely lauded for his popular Eat Out to Help Out Scheme and in July polled as the most popular Chancellor in 15 years. Polling for this magazine, carried out by Redfield & Wilton, shows 54% believe he has made sound financial decisions – this research was carried out before he revealed a range of new measures to help businesses in Tier 2 after widespread complaints.
Against his slick branding, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and a nick-name “Dishy Rishi”, does Dodds feel any pressure to compete?
“I don’t care about that side if the right policies are being decided on but I don’t think we’ve had the right policies put in place.
“We’ve had unemployment levels and GDP both lower than anticipated. Something is going wrong.”
She hasn’t spoken to Sunak personally since the spring and would like him to appear in person more regularly in the Commons when he is called, rather than sending chief financial secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Barclay.
We have had a number of years where people haven’t connected Labour’s policies with their lives, with the problems they face
She takes issue with what she sees as Sunak’s inconsistency – citing his return to the dispatch box to amend his Winter Economic Plan, not once but twice, the government’s refusal to spend money directly on free meals in the holidays for children, while wasting £150m on dud facemasks with the wrong kind of straps made by a private firm.
All of this suggests he is a less substantial figure than the media might have us believe, she feels. Sunak would be better off answering direct questions rather than his team updating his social media channels, she suggests. “I think the vast majority of people are not really looking at any politician’s Instagram posts,” she says.
Dodds, 42, grew up in Aberdeen and went to the same fee-paying school as Michael Gove, Robert Gordon’s College, though many years apart. Her late father Keith was an accountant, who she has spoken of fondly and describes as a big inspiration in her life, particularly his dedication to countering fraud.
Laughing at her prudent upbringing, she says: “There’s another MP who comes from a similar background to me in Parliament, and he said at one point: ‘In my house, every pound was a prisoner’ and I thought, ‘I empathise with that.’”
She says she “supposes” she was a lefty student activist when she was President of the Oxford University Student Union, explaining she certainly wasn’t “on the right”, but is modest about her role, adding that it was all a very long time ago now.
After a career in academia she was elected as a Member of the European Parliament in 2014. Then she ran to be MP for Oxford East, retaining the seat for Labour at the 2017 snap general election. Now in a senior role, she wants to restore faith in her party.
“We have had a number of years where people haven’t connected Labour’s policies with their lives, how they can get on better, with the problems they face. We’ve got to understand why people felt like that.
“People have had ten years of stagnating living standards, they want to know that the Labour party will be concerned to look after public money very carefully. That’s what I’m committed to.”