The last few weeks has seen us reach a grave place in our fight against Covid-19. The number of cases is rising across the country. There are now more people in hospital with Covid-19 than on March 23 when we went into national lockdown. The spread of infections is hitting all age groups.
All of this – along with the advice from the government’s scientists – is why Keir Starmer and the Labour party have been calling for a short, sharp circuit break of two to three weeks to fix the broken Test and Trace system, protect the NHS and save lives.
Our proposal would mean a temporary set of clear and effective restrictions designed to get the “R” rate down and reverse the trend of infections and hospital admissions. It would not mean closing schools, but if it happened soon it could be done over half-term to minimise disruption.
Introducing national restrictions is not something anyone wants to do. It was not inevitable, but because of the government’s incompetence it is now necessary. And the cost of not acting now – both for our nation’s health and economy – could be serious.
It would give the government space to address the biggest hole in their response to the pandemic: the test and trace system.
Analysis released by Labour a few days ago shows that nearly a quarter of a million of close contacts to people who tested positive for Covid-19 were not contacted by the government’s tracing system. In one week in October alone, 80,000 close contacts to people tested positive fell off the map.
This failure is absolutely jaw dropping – especially when you consider we were offered a “world-beating” system by the prime minister.
We are beyond the tipping point with the test and trace system. Without our local councils working day in day out to pick up the pieces, contact tracing would have all but collapsed. If the prime minister was to use his common sense and the precious time a short circuit breaker would bring, we could start to rapidly improve the system.
“As we enter the second wave, we need to return to a spirit of unity.”
We should start by guaranteeing the 24-hour test turnaround time – to help us keep up with the virus and take swift action when there is an outbreak.
We can increase testing capacity by using NHS and university labs, rolling out regular testing in specific high-transmission settings, and innovate our approach with saliva and pool testing to speed up the process.
Targeted, regular testing in high risk workplaces – especially to protect our NHS and social care workers – can help stop the spread quicker.
We can urgently improve contact tracing too – which has been led by Serco and is getting worse week by week. The SAGE minutes from September 21 show the government’s scientists believe the test, trace and isolate strategy was only having a “marginal” impact, despite the £12 billion invested.
With them only contacting barely 70% of people, Serco’s contract must not be renewed. But we don’t have to wait for those ludicrous contracts to run out to start fixing this – there are practical and reasonable steps that can be taken to hand over control to local communities and reach people faster.
Finally, the government can and must support people to do the right thing and self-isolate when required, by making sure they get the financial support they need.
It was beyond disgraceful to see Tory MPs voting against the Labour motion yesterday, which called on the government to face up to its appalling treatment of Greater Manchester, and make good on its claim that it would do “whatever it takes” to support workers and businesses, by ensuring those faced with hardship receive at least 80% of their previous incomes.
By choosing to deny this, they have left those worker’s very livelihoods hanging by a thread.
We entered this pandemic as a country together – united together in our determination to protect the NHS and save lives. As we enter the second wave, we need to return to that spirit of unity. We cannot defeat this virus divided – yet division is what the government seems intent on creating.
That means this government providing the economic support communities need to protect jobs and businesses no matter where they are. It means looking at what’s working, and frankly, what isn’t when it comes to our Test & Trace system. And it means taking decisive action and showing clear leadership before we are plunged into a long and bleak winter.
Rachel Reeves is Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Labour MP for Leeds West