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Test and Trace

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2020

NHS Test and Trace was introduced on 28 May, working with local authorities to prevent and contain the spread of covid-19. I am encouraged by the early results, which show that in the first two weeks of operation 87,000 people were contacted by NHS Test and Trace and agreed to self-isolate.

The Secretary of State will recall that I wrote to him a little while ago suggesting that an approach that was a bit more Shoreditch and a little less Whitehall might be effective. Given the lack of success of the app, maybe he could have taken that advice. I am pleased that Hackney Council is one of the five areas that is piloting this, working with GPs and other health professionals in public health and so on, but the critical thing is that we are not getting the data locally that we need to do the proper tracing of those who were close to someone who has tested positive. When will that data arrive? Without it, it is like working with one arm tied behind our back.

The amount of data flowing to local authorities has increased substantially over the past few weeks since the start of the operation at the end of last month, and there will be more coming very, very soon.

We all want to see lockdown eased, but that reopening will only be safe if the system to test, trace and isolate is working effectively. As more people return to work, start to travel on public transport, and perhaps even go to pubs, cafés and hairdressers—albeit keeping their distance—the ability to trace contact people we do not know will become much more important. The Secretary of State initially said that the app would be rolled out in mid-May; it is now the end of June. When are we actually going to see the app in action?

Obviously, as soon as possible. I agree very strongly with the hon. Lady about the importance of contact tracing—the Test and Trace programme is one of the largest of its kind—to ensure that, as we manage to lift national measures, which we can because the disease is clearly under control and the number of cases is coming down, we can then respond through local action.

NHS Test and Trace will play an important part in our continued fight against covid-19, but efficient co-ordination across Great Britain will be vital to its success. What steps has my right hon. Friend taken to ensure effective joint working between England, Wales and Scotland?

That is an incredibly important question. Of course, I would add Northern Ireland to that group. We have regular meetings. I have a weekly call with my counterparts in the devolved Governments. Of course, the devolved Governments have a huge role to play in this. I will give whatever support I can to help the Welsh Government to make sure that they can deliver contact tracing, and indeed the wider testing programme, as well as possible.

Will the Minister urgently set out a plan to support local authorities to implement local lockdowns if needed, along with providing them with all the resources they need to implement this?

NHS Test and Trace is currently tracing the contacts of about 700 people every day who have the virus, but the Office for National Statistics says that 2,500 new people are being infected every day, which means that since the programme started, up to a quarter of a million people have not been asked to isolate who should have been. It is a big achievement to get the programme going, but that is also a big gap. What are the Secretary of State’s plans to close it?

I am not sure I agree with my right hon. Friend’s figures in terms of the assumptions that underpin them. We have had this discussion and this exchange before. There are a whole number of asymptomatic cases. The critical thing about Test and Trace is to find as many of the asymptomatic cases, and as many of the positive test result cases, as possible. We need to do that over time by expanding the programme.

While a proximity app would assist in identifying casual contacts, many people were concerned that a centralised model would harvest their data. In the trial, this one failed to detect 96% of contacts. So why did the Secretary of State persist so long with an app that simply did not work on the majority of phones?

I am afraid the hon. Lady is wrong. The trials in the Isle of Wight showed that the app worked on Android phones, but was blocked from working effectively on Apple phones; hence we are now working with Apple and Google, as we have been over the past few weeks, to find a system that can be effective. But I will not sign off on an app when we do not know and have not been told by some multinational company what it is recommending to people because, after all, the critical thing that matters in test and trace is that people isolate to break the chain of transmission.

I would gently suggest that iPhones are actually quite common, so it is important that it does work on iPhones. The boss of Serco has admitted that its contact tracing system will not be fully functioning until the autumn, and we find that actually local public health teams are carrying out the vast majority of contact tracing, so would Government money not be better spent reversing five years of budget cuts to public health?

It is very strange taking these questions from the SNP spokesman, given that I am working with the SNP Government on resolving exactly these problems in Scotland, and maybe the SNP would do better to focus there. In response to the second question, honestly, we have put £300 million of support into local directors of public health to tackle this pandemic, and I know that her colleagues in the Scottish Government are working hard with local authorities in Scotland as well in exactly the same way.

The Prime Minister promised that 100,000 people a day would be tested by the end of April, so since that date, on how many occasions have more than 100,000 people been tested on any single day?

I have not got those data exactly—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Opposition would care to engage on the substance, rather than not taking this seriously. Yesterday, we delivered the 8 millionth test in this country. We have delivered more than 100,000 tests on almost every day since the end of April, and at the end of last week we were delivering 230,000 tests a day. I think what we need from the Opposition is support for the testing programme, because that is what people care about.