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Mon, 21 September 2020

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Test and trace is not the world-beating system we were promised, it is barely fit for purpose

Test and trace is not the world-beating system we were promised, it is barely fit for purpose

Only this week, people in Greater Manchester who needed a Covid-19 test were being told to drive to Aberdeen to a drive-in testing centre, writes Barbara Keeley MP. | PA Images

4 min read

The Government promised would to do whatever it takes to beat Covid-19. It’s time for ministers to live up to their word and build a system which works, is prepared for the demands of winter and a second wave.

From the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been clear that the only way we can control the virus without a vaccine is widespread testing and the isolation of anyone who has been in contact with someone who has Covid-19.

To make this work, we need three things in place: a robust testing programme, effective contact tracing and support for people who are asked to isolate – whether that’s financial support or help getting their shopping.

Across the summer, when case numbers were relatively low and the furlough scheme was still in place, the Test and Trace system seemed to be coping with the demands we were putting on it. But over recent weeks it has become clear that we are not ready for the demands of winter or any second wave of infection.

Developing a testing regime quickly was always going to be a challenge but after 6 months it is clear that there is still far more work to be done if our testing programme is going to cope with the demands of winter, ‘flu and a second wave.

Only this week, people in Greater Manchester who needed a Covid-19 test were being told to drive to Aberdeen to a drive-in testing centre. That’s a journey of more than 6 hours each way by car – something that many people simply are not able to do.

We are still far below our nominal testing capacity, so the Government must explain why people cannot access tests. Without this, every other step we are taking to control the virus will prove wasted as positive cases do not know that they should self-isolate.

Local public health teams, with their local knowledge, are far better at contact tracing than the national system

In April, the Government’s own scientific advisors said that for a contact tracing scheme to work, it would need to reach 80% of close contacts of positive cases within 24 hours of the first person showing symptoms.

In the most recent week for which data is available, the national contact tracing scheme reached 56% of close contacts overall with under half of contacts reached being contacted within 24 hours. This is not the world-beating system we were promised, it is barely fit for purpose.

What we have seen is that local public health teams, with their local knowledge, are far better at contact tracing than the national system. Local authority leaders are calling for the  Government to recognise this and transfer resources so that contact tracing could be done by locally-led public health teams.

Statutory sick pay is £95 a week compared to an average salary of £585 a week for full time workers. The extra support the Government has announced for people asked to self-isolate is even less generous, amounting to only £13 a day.

This means that anybody who cannot work from home is facing a financial penalty running into hundreds of pounds if they have to self-isolate for two weeks. I know from my constituents that most people want to do the right thing and help stop the spread of the virus, but some are currently facing a choice between doing that and putting food on the table.

This is grossly unfair and has led to many workers feeling they have no choice but to go to work even when they are ill – putting others at risk. This isn’t their fault, but a failure of a Government who seemingly do not understand the reality of many people’s lives.

None of these are insurmountable obstacles. With political will and financial backing, the Government could build a system which works and supports people financially to do the right thing. At the start of this crisis, we were told that Government would do whatever it takes to beat Covid-19. It’s time for ministers to live up to their words and make the changes we need.

 
Barbara Keeley is the Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South.

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