Keir Starmer has called for council chiefs and mayors in England to be urgently given new powers over both local lockdowns and NHS Test and Trace.
Amid a growing revolt among local leaders at fresh restrictions imposed by the Tory government, the Labour leader told HuffPost UK that it was now time for them to be “put in the driver’s seat” in the battle against coronavirus.
Starmer said that health secretary Matt Hancock should share decision making with council leaders and metro Mayors, offer cash packages for businesses locked down and end the confusing public health messages.
In an exclusive interview, he also demanded a radical overhaul of NHS Test and Trace to prevent it from damaging the reputation of the NHS itself, with local public health teams leading the service rather than Tory peer Dido Harding or private firms like Serco and Deloitte.
On Thursday, Hancock unveiled a new ban on different households mixing in pubs or homes in Liverpool City region, Warrington, Teesside and Hartlepool from Saturday.
Middlesbrough mayor Andy Preston said he would “defy the government and we do not accept these measures”, and he was backed up by Hartlepool council leader Shane Moore.
Some 57 different areas of the UK, making up a third of the population, are now under tougher restrictions than the rest of the country.
Starmer said: “The message to the government is: involve local local leaders, whether it’s council leaders or mayors, much more intensely, and much earlier. Because what’s going on is sometimes consultation, sometimes not.
“There’s a massive frustration if you talk to the mayors in Manchester or Liverpool, they’ve not been properly brought into the process and listened to. The same in the northeast with the leader of Newcastle Council, a sense that the decision is being made centrally in London, when they should be in the room as part of the process.
“And this isn’t just about another layer of bureaucracy, bringing someone else in. These are people who know their communities. And not only do they know their communities, they’re in very regular contact with the police, with the hospitals and their community groups, and they can put messages across their communities. So they need to be in the driver’s seat, much more central to the process.”
He added: “The other part of this is that there’s a huge mismatch now between local restrictions and economic support. So instead of saying, here’s the package of restrictions, here’s the support that goes with it, the second bit isn’t there. Local leaders are a mess of tearing their hair out about what’s going to happen to jobs and businesses on their own patch.
“It should be shared decision making. I don’t think local mayors and leaders should have a veto. I don’t think they should make decisions on their own. But they should be a proper part of the process.”
On Thursday, NHS Test and Trace again posted worsening contact rates for those who have been close to people who tested positive for Covid.
Just 64.3% of contacts were reached in cases handled either online or by private sector outsourced call centres. But the figure was 97.6% for cases handled by council-run local health protection teams.
In one of his biggest breaks with government policy since he became leader, Starmer called for the first time for a complete overhaul of the system and that he agreed with Manchester metro Mayor Andy Burnham that it had to now be “locally led”.
Labour wants the English system to resemble that in Wales, where the Welsh government meets with council chiefs, shares evidence on cases and positivity rates and where test and trace is not run as a “privatised enterprise”.
“I completely understand the concerns that the NHS brand is being associated with test and trace when in fact, it’s been parcelled out, often with contracts to Serco and other companies,” Starmer said.
“What the government should have done is to put it locally, months and months ago. Local authority leaders were saying to the government ’they should let us lead on test, trace and isolate.
“‘We can do it, we can do it locally, we know our communities, and we’re up for the responsibility’. The government nearly went down that track and did start bringing them in a bit, but still insists on putting the big contracts elsewhere. Big mistake. Compare that with Germany, where they have done it from the local up and you’ve got a much better system.”
Asked if that meant the end of a role for firms like Serco and Deloitte, Starmer said: “It should be locally led. I’m not going to say that you should be no involvement of others, but nobody could look at the test, trace and isolate arrangements and think that they’re working, let alone effective, let alone world class.“
In a Zoom summit with Labour council chiefs, Starmer was later told by Burnham that the government had just a couple of weeks to give local leaders to put “contact tracing in hands of local authorities” or face a winter of rising ill-health and joblessness.
Burnham said “local restrictions must have local support”, adding that “local control of test and trace” was essential. “This is a tough time for any government but to have made mistakes and keep on making them, that is arrogant,” he said.
He pointed out that northern areas had been ignored when the “London-centric” decision was made to lift the national lockdown this summer.
“We were in a different position and yet they lifted it. From our point of view we’ve never been in a position to keep cases low, they were too high and then we were already in a difficult position, then people were being encouraged to eat out to help out and god knows what.”
Newcastle council leader Nick Forbes added that NHS Test and Trace, which this week announced it was replacing an NHS official with a former head of Sainsbury’s, was “privatised and centralised”.
Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed agreed that the system now needed “to be local by default” because “the centralised Serco system hasn’t worked”.
Welsh government health minister Vaughan Gething said that because its test and trace service was focused on the public sector, it was achieving a high level of contacts, with 91% of cases reached and 83% of their close contacts.