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NHS Test and Trace

Volume 679: debated on Tuesday 1 September 2020

NHS Test and Trace is consistently reaching tens of thousands of people who need to isolate each week. In the latest week’s data, 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate where contact details were provided. Since its launch, we have reached over 300,000 people who may have been unwittingly carrying the virus and transmitting it, to ensure that they keep themselves safe and keep their community safe.

Scientists in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have continually warned that, for the test and trace system to be successful, 80% of people in contact with those who have covid must be reached. We are well off that target, I am afraid to say. Will the Secretary of State consider seeking advice from our European partners who have had a functioning system since May, or is he going to continue to allow the private sector to do this, on which it has no proven track record, and protect the interests of particular companies that certain civil servants allegedly may have links with? Are we going to see a serious approach to this?

Unlike the question, we will have a serious approach to this. I will absolutely defend to all ends the teams who work on our NHS test and trace system, the private sector companies without which this would be impossible and the civil servants who are working day and night to make this happen. I will not have disparaging remarks about civil servants, who have done so much during this pandemic, made in this House by the hon. Gentleman. I do not think he was listening to my answer, because the latest week’s data show that 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate where contact details were provided.

Cheadle residents welcome the release of the intervention measures that will take place tomorrow and the more local approach to this. Effective test and trace has been a vital part of getting us to this position and keeping the rates low. To continue with that, will the Secretary of State consider devolving the testing of cases to local authorities such as Stockport, which has a 99% rate of success?

My hon. Friend has played a very important role, and I pay tribute to her and her community for playing a role in the success of the local action that we had to take in Stockport and other parts of Greater Manchester, which meant that we were able to release the measures last week. I am grateful for her work, the work of her council and other local leaders and, most importantly, the people of Stockport, who have worked hard and followed the rules, and the case rate is coming down. She is right that the integration of a national system that can move fast at scale and a local system, which can often reach more contacts because there are boots on the ground and people who know the communities inside out, is critical.

In my right hon. Friend’s assessment, how does our track and trace programme compare with those of other countries, and what lessons are we learning from countries such as Germany and South Korea, which seem to be having some success with their systems?

Of course we learn the lessons, and I talk to my international counterparts, including those in Germany and South Korea. Compared with international systems, with the figures that I just read out, we are absolutely in the top tranche, and we are constantly looking all around the world to see how we can improve the operation of test and trace.

Devon’s director of public health has confirmed that we in North Devon have had no statistically significant increase in cases as a result of the return of tourism. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that test and trace will ensure that that remains the case?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for everything she has done to stick up for North Devon at this difficult time. I am really pleased that there is no evident increase in covid in Devon as a result of tourism. So many people go to Devon, during the summer especially, because it is such a wonderful place. We must ensure that, through test and trace and through social distancing, which is the first line of defence against this virus, that remains the case.

Covid hit Croydon and the rest of London early and hard, but Croydon has done us proud, and the number of infections has been very low for a number of weeks, thanks to the hard work of the people in the borough. We welcome the move towards more local track and trace, where expertise and local knowledge make all the difference, but as my director of public health said to me, we have just finished the beginning of this thing and we are now starting the next chapter. One of the things that keeps her awake at night is the need for certainty about budgets for outbreak control plans beyond the end of the year. Can the Secretary of State provide some reassurance?

Absolutely. I am glad to hear what the hon. Lady says about the constantly improving integration between the national and local systems. We have worked hard to make that happen, and I am glad to hear that it is happening in Croydon, as it is in other parts of the country. The budgets in that respect are of course important, and we have been clear that financial provision will be made. I cannot make any more definitive statement than that at this stage, but it is of course an important consideration.

Since June, the Scottish public health-based tracing system has managed to trace 99.7% of positive cases and almost 99% of their contacts, yet in England the commercial Serco call centres have traced less than 60% of contacts. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether any targets are included in the £10 billion contact with Serco? If so, are they being met?

If I may correct the hon. Lady, there is no £10 billion contract with any private company. The private companies have been critical in the work to make sure that the whole testing system could be built at the scale that it has been. As I said, the improvements are continuing. We are seeing local engagement, which is critical, and we are seeing testing rolled out right across the UK. For instance, when there was a local outbreak in Aberdeen over the summer, we were able to use UK resources to get huge amounts of testing into Aberdeen, thanks to the collaborative work between the UK Government, who provided the UK testing, and the Scottish Government, who were responsible for the lockdown.

That does not address the fact that the call-centre system run by Serco has managed to contact only 60% of people’s contacts. Regional Public Health England teams have been working flat out for the past seven months and are tracing more than 95% of the cases with which they deal. Does the Secretary of State really think that the middle of a pandemic is a good time to be threatening the job security of those teams with a huge reorganisation?

The answer to the first part of the hon. Lady’s question is that when we are trying to reach scale fast, we use the national system. That then engages with the local system—for instance, in Croydon, as we just heard—so that we can get the boots on the ground to find those contacts who cannot be contacted through the national system. It is the combination of the two that works best. As for making sure that our systems are in the best possible place to tackle coronavirus going forward, I absolutely think that it is right constantly to be seeking to make improvements to how things operate, which is why I announced the changes that I did.

In some areas, the private companies involved in test and trace have been reaching less than half the contacts they are supposed to reach, not the 80% that the Secretary of State has claimed. We do not need an algorithm to work out that those companies’ performance, compared with that of local public health teams, is where test and trace is failing. Why, then, are the Government rewarding private sector failure by extending the contracts?

As I have just explained, the test and trace system at the national level makes the immediate and rapid first attempt at contact. If no contact is made, the local teams can then go in. It is the combination of the two that works best. I really think that the Opposition —especially coming from the Front-Bench team—are making a mistake in trying to divide people between public and private. Actually, everybody is working very hard together to deliver the control of this virus.