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NHS Test and Trace

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020

NHS Test and Trace launched in May. Four months later, more than 150,000 people who have tested positive for covid-19 have been contacted, and 450,000 of their contacts have been reached so that they can self-isolate. We have tested more than 7 million people at least once and many, such as care home workers, more than once. Rapid expansion brings with it challenges. Working with local authorities, we will continue to improve test and trace, as it is an important part of our armoury to defeat this virus.

As a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adult social care, I meet weekly with a working group drawn from across the care sector. Providers on that group report that they are still experiencing delays in receiving weekly test results, still have no routine access to weekly testing for domiciliary care workers or staff working in supported living environments and urgently need regular testing for family members to alleviate the terrible isolation of care home residents from their loved ones. When will the care sector have all the access to testing that it needs on a reliable basis to stop the second wave of coronavirus delivering the utter tragedy and devastation of the first to the care sector?

I thank the hon. Member for her question and for the work that she does with the APPG, which I joined recently for a very valuable conversation. Supporting care homes through the pandemic and in the months ahead is absolutely our, and my, priority. One part of that is ensuring that they have the testing that they need. We are getting regular repeat testing to care homes. I acknowledge that the turnaround times have not been what we would have liked them to be, but those turnaround times are coming down and we are seeing a rapid improvement in performance.

This week, the president of the Association of Directors of Public Health said that the funding is just not there for local authorities to effectively run local contact tracing. Where it has been done, at a cost to the local authority, evidence shows that local teams were more likely to be successful in contacting people compared with the national tiers 2 and 3. Can the Minister tell me why the Government keep insisting that the current track and trace system is working when public health professionals are telling them the opposite?

I thank the hon. Member for her question. I am sure she will know that local authorities received £400 million to support them with local outbreak management. It is really important to have this coming together of the national system and the local system, where local authorities are indeed playing an important part, using their local knowledge to follow up with contact tracing, particularly for some of the contacts that are proving harder to reach.

Schools in my constituency are having to close, disrupting children’s education and the work of their parents. Serco’s test and trace has been an unmitigated disaster. It is more than an extraordinary waste of public money; it is a public health crisis. To make matters worse, Ministers signed off on a wholly inappropriate Excel spreadsheet, blowing billions and leaving thousands of contacts untraced. When I asked the Secretary of State last week when he was going to take personal responsibility, he simply boasted that the system was working brilliantly. When does the Minister think her boss, the Secretary of State, will begin to take personal responsibility for this fiasco?

There was quite a lot in that question. One thing I will say on schools is that enabling our children to continue to go to school is very much part of the whole strategy that we are using to tackle and suppress coronavirus, because education is so important. On the specific test and trace system to which the hon. Member refers, the Secretary of State spent an hour and a half in the Chamber yesterday answering colleagues’ questions about the performance of that system.

In the light of the fact that infection levels in York have risen from 63.1 cases per 100,000 to 143.9 cases per 100,000 in just the past seven days, the local public health team is working with the university and local labs, and together they have put together a programme where they can test, process the testing and do contact tracing. This is a testing service that works for York, with test results the next day and tracers who understand local population flows. Will the Minister put the necessary resources in place to enable them to do their work and allow this to happen, because this is surely the game changer we need to beat this virus?

Well, it is very good to hear of the set-up in York that the hon. Member describes, and what I can do is take away from here and follow up to ensure that there is joint working, which we know is a really effective way to bring together national resources with the local resources, expertise and knowledge that are so important in tackling this virus.

With covid, speed is of the essence, but people are struggling to get a test due to limited capacity at the Lighthouse labs. New labs were due to open in Newport in August and in Loughborough last month, but both are delayed. As NHS labs are having to take on more testing, can the Minister say what additional funding will be provided specifically to increase NHS lab capacity?

The context is the huge increase in the testing capacity of our system that we have already seen, going from in the order of 2,000 tests a day back in March to well over 200,000 tests a day now and building up to 500,000 tests by the end of this month. I recognise also that there is both the Lighthouse labs—what is known as pillar 2 testing system—and the important part that NHS testing facilities play in the pandemic. And of course the hon. Member will know that a huge amount of money has been and is going into the NHS to support its response to covid.

Scotland’s public health-based tracing service has reached over 95% of contacts, yet four months on, the Serco system in England has still only reached 61%. As finding contacts and getting them to isolate is critical to reducing covid spread, should not tracing in England now be based more on local public health teams?

It may be helpful to say that, since the NHS Test and Trace system started, it has contacted 78.5% of those who have tested positive, and then 77% of their contacts have been reached. There is an important part of the system where the national contact tracers are handing over to local authority contact tracers who are able to access the same system and are supported in contact tracing but, critically, are also using their local knowledge of the local area to increase the success rate. It is really important that people are reached wherever possible and advised to self-isolate.

May I also say how much I appreciate and thank all those who are doing the right thing by self-isolating, both those with symptoms and those who have been contacted by contact tracers?

I am not going to ask about the current problems with test and trace, because it is clear from what we have heard already that the Government have no answers on that. Instead, I will ask about the so-called moonshot tests and Dido Harding’s comments that some people will have to pay for them. When the Prime Minister was given a chance in the Chamber, a fortnight ago, to deny that was on the table, he did not take it. We have real concerns about creating a two-tier system for tests where some people have to pay. It undermines a fundamental principle of the NHS and will do nothing to stop the spread of the virus. Will the Minister give us a definitive answer today? Are some people going to have to pay to access the moonshot tests, yes or no?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there could be a two-tier system. What we have in place is a universal system where everybody who has symptoms is able to access a test. As he well knows, where we know there are particular risks, such as for those in care home settings, there are also tests for those who do not have symptoms so that we can pick up outbreaks early. A huge amount of resource and investment is going into developing new technologies for testing—easier testing, quicker tests and tests that can be done at greater scale—because this is all part of building up our testing capacity, so we can suppress this horrid virus.