In a democracy, taking the public with you is the only realistic way of enforcing Covid rules
We need sustainable guidance that people can follow for a considerable period, writes Mark Harper MP. | PA Images
A critical part of the government’s plan is an effective test, trace and isolate system, but current performance isn't good enough. They must shift resources to local public health teams.
May seems a long time ago, but that was when the government properly talked about ‘Our Plan to Rebuild’, a coherent blueprint of how to recover after a full, national lockdown.
As we moved out of lockdown, it was inevitable that public messaging would become more complex. The plan said that the government would invest in enhancing population-wide public health education to ensure everyone had the information and education needed to take responsible risk judgements and that even those at low personal risk would need to continue following the rules and guidance so that they do not pass the infection on.
Throughout the pandemic, government advice has been a mixture of guidance and law. If the government makes a well-argued case supported by evidence, I think it would be sufficient to issue guidance and still see high levels of compliance. In a democracy, taking the public with you is the only realistic way of enforcing these sorts of rules.
However, the government has decided to put most of the advice into law – given the complexity, this has downsides. For example, in a Tier 2 area, there are 17 (yes, 17!) exceptions to the rules limiting indoor gatherings.
In the government’s plan, the Prime Minister said that the only feasible long-term solution lies with a vaccine or drug-based treatment and he was frank enough to say that while we hope for a breakthrough, hope is not a plan – a mass vaccine or treatment may be more than a year away. That was only five months ago.
The Prime Minister reminded us this week that there is a good chance of a vaccine, but it cannot be taken for granted. We are not going to see the cavalry coming over the next few months, so we need sustainable guidance that people can follow for a considerable period.
The government has a good plan to deal with Covid-19, but they must deliver it
We need to continue good hand hygiene, using face coverings and maintaining social distancing. Workplaces and social settings must remain Covid-secure and, as we learn more about the virus, may need modifying as time goes on.
A critical part of the government’s plan is an effective test, trace and isolate system. It is right to acknowledge the significant extra testing capacity over the last few months, although there is still more to do.
The area requiring significant improvement is the contact tracing and isolating part, which SAGE analysis says is only having a marginal impact on transmission.
SAGE have agreed that an effective test, trace and isolate system needs at least 80% of contacts of a positive case to isolate.
Currently, test and trace only reaches 74% of positive tests transferred to the system. Of those, just under 69% of their contacts were reached – that means only just over 50% of contacts of those who test positive are being reached and asked to self-isolate. This isn’t good enough.
The best way to improve this is to use the expertise of local public health teams – they are experienced in doing this sort of work, know their own areas and will be more effective than a centralised model. I would trust my own public health team in Gloucestershire.
The government has a good plan to deal with Covid-19, but they must deliver it.
They must significantly increase the performance of our test, trace and isolate system by shifting resources to local public health teams to lead contact tracing and break the chain of transmission. We can then live our lives in a sustainable way for the significant period of time that will be necessary before effective vaccines and treatments arrive.
Mark Harper is Member of Parliament for the Forest of Dean and a former government chief whip.