Ministers have one month to fix the broken test-and-trace system and halt a devastating second wave of coronavirus or Britain will face a “long and bleak winter”, Keir Starmer says today.
The Labour leader warned there is “precious little evidence” of serious preparation for a resurgence in Covid-19 cases.
Writing for the Guardian, Starmer calls for mass testing of asymptomatic people and a clear plan setting out what “hard decisions” Boris Johnson is prepared to take in order to keep schools open if cases rise over coming weeks.
Starmer says the prime minister must admit his “world-beating” £10bn system is flawed. “His repeated refusal to accept that test and trace isn’t functioning properly is a roadblock to fixing the issues and restoring public confidence,” he writes.
The intervention comes as councils launched new localised systems for contact tracing to plug holes in the national scheme. Blackburn with Darwen council in Lancashire announced it had set up its own team on Tuesday after the national system failed to reach hundreds of its most vulnerable residents.
In other areas, including Leicester and Liverpool, council workers have been carrying out door-to-door tracing – but local health officials says incomplete data from the national system is hampering their efforts.
On Tuesday, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who modelled scenarios for the reopening of schools, warned that the test and trace system currently reaches around half of contacts and needs to improve dramatically in order to avoid a second wave, which could be bigger than the first.
Starmer calls for renewed focus on testing in today’s article. “Alongside rapid improvements to the test-and-trace system, we need a focus on ensuring testing reaches more of the estimated 70-80% of people who don’t have [coronavirus] symptoms,” he writes.
Labour sources highlighted current spare capacity in the testing system, saying the party would support any reasonable new moves to use that capacity to build a better national picture of the number of asymptomatic cases.
A number of countries have adopted routine asymptomatic testing, including
and most successfully, South Korea, which opened public testing to everyone, regardless of symptoms, from February.
Starmer is to step up specific criticism of the government’s systems this month, both on communication and test and trace, warning the government has less than five weeks, rather than months, to get preparations in place to tackle a resurgence of the virus once children across the UK are all back in school.
A functioning test-and-trace system is the key not only to preventing a second wave, but also to unlocking the economy and building public confidence to get children back to school, Labour will warn.
“It’s great if the government are committed to getting the schools open, but polling on this hasn’t shifted: parents are still concerned about sending their kids to school, that won’t change without public confidence in the test-and-trace system,” one Labour source said.
In his Guardian piece, Starmer says schools must be the absolute priority in September, even if that comes at economic and social cost. “Young people cannot afford another damaging U-turn like the one made by the education secretary in June,” he writes. “The government must set out a clear plan this time, not just hope for the best. If that means making hard decisions elsewhere, so be it: to govern is to choose.”
The Labour leader attacked the government’s communications strategy, saying haphazard announcements of new local lockdowns and quarantines, as well as mixed messages on workers returning to offices, had left the public confused and anxious.
“Getting a grip on communications is essential. Reintroducing regular press conferences would help,” he says. “Working closely with authorities, not governing by diktat, is crucial. There should be an end to anonymous, contradictory briefings to the media.” Starmer’s last comment is a veiled reference to ideas floated and then dismissed such as shielding advice for over-50s and reform of the quarantine system.
Labour’s strategy over the coming month will be to present Starmer as a leader who can work constructively but also set the government specific targets. He warns a new plan must be drawn up to protect care homes during any resurgence of the virus and calls for a redrawing of the furlough scheme to target specific industries.
“The current one-size-fits-all removal of furlough risks a squeeze on jobs that could hand a P45 to people across the country,” he says, while also criticising the government for spending “untargeted billions on bonuses for companies who have already brought workers back from furlough, and a stamp duty cut for landlords”.
Starmer, who will visit the lost Labour heartland of Stoke-on-Trent on Wednesday to hammer home his message on the need to protect jobs, said he would support any moves the government took in the coming months to improve the failures he had highlighted.
“This crisis is bigger than politics. But the reality is that if the government doesn’t use this summer wisely, focusing on driving down the rate of infection, Britain faces a long and bleak winter.”
A government spokesperson said it backed local action to tackle outbreaks, such as the steps taken in Blackburn, but stopped short of promising any imminent further expansion of testing to find asymptomatic cases.
“NHS test and trace is already working – last week over 80% of those testing positive were reached, with over 75% of their contacts reached as well … we have rapidly built, from scratch, the largest diagnostic testing industry in British history. Over 2.6 million people have been tested in just eight weeks and we have the capacity to carry out more than 330,000 tests per day, growing to 500,000 per day by the end of October.”