Labour demands ‘rapid reform’ of coronavirus contact tracing system with call to cut outsourcing funding

Government insists NHS Test and Trace is working alongside local action to tackle outbreaks
NHS Track and trace PA

By Eleanor Langford

10 Aug 2020

Labour are calling on the government to cut funding to a major coronavirus test and trace contractor in favour of locally-led measures.

In a letter to Matt Hancock, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth and shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves expressed concern over a deal with Serco to deliver contact tracing services.

Ministers are expected to announce later this month whether they will expand their agreement with the company, increasing the value of the contract from £108m to £410m.

But Ashworth and Reeves have branded the operation as “ineffective and not fit for purpose” and are calling for no further funding to be given to the company.

They wrote: “The prime minister promised the country that we would have a ‘world-beating’ contact tracing system by 1 June and we dispute that this has been achieved.

“The stakes are too high to tolerate failure in either the operation or the design of this crucial public service."

The shadow ministers added: “Concerns about whether the system is fit for purpose must be urgently addressed to prevent the devastating consequences of a rise in infections in autumn and winter and break the chains of transmission to contain local outbreaks.

“We recognise that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a significant challenge to government, however, there is real concern at the failure of the current centralised system led by Serco to operate effectively.

“We cannot afford for the test and trace system to continue as it is without rapid reform.”

Labour is now reiterating its calls for “locally-led contact tracing measures” coordinated by NHS trusts and public health teams.

And they are demanding answers from the government on details of Serco’s operation, including what targets the company has been set and why it is failing to reach many contacts.

It comes after official data published last week revealed that over 4,800 close contacts of those who had tested positive were not reached by the central service.

Speaking to the BBC's Westminster Hour on Sunday night, senior Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin also criticised the pace of the test and trace programme.

The liaison committee chair, who was previously the chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee, said: “I think the government were very slow to realise the importance of track and trace at the outset.

"Bear in mind the whole of Whitehall had prepared for an influenza and not for a coronavirus [pandemic] and that’s the fundamental problem the government had contended with.”

But a government spokesperson said: "NHS Test and Trace is working, and local action to tackle outbreaks and keep people safe is a crucial part of the national service.

"We are rolling out more dedicated ring-fenced teams of contact tracers, who are trained health professionals, to work intensively with health protection teams on a local area and are recruiting more people to work in local public health teams too.

"In just nine weeks NHS Test and Trace has tested over 3 million people for coronavirus and has reached almost a quarter of a million people who have either tested positive or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive – in order to break the chain of transmission."

Eleanor Langford is a reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a verison of this story first appeared.

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