Karin Smyth MP on the importance of Coronavirus testing and contact tracing

There has been much confusion around the latest announcement from the government on changes to the lockdown restrictions. The Labour Party, under the leadership of Keir Starmer, has been pushing the government for more details on the plan going forward as there are many questions left unanswered (see an example of this here). 

The virus remains active in our communties and, in order to help restrict its spread and prevent further large outbreaks, we must have extensive local testing and tracing measures in place. This will help us to isolate and control any new outbreaks quickly and efficiently. 

The focus to-date has been centred around testing an app on the Isle of Wight, but we cannot rely on an app alone. Contact tracing is a skill that requires community knowledge. Despite having more than 20 years’ experience working in NHS planning, I have found it difficult to follow how the Government intends testing and tracing to work once scaled up.

The Government is not currently choosing not to use local expertise to test, trace and track the virus. It is not even sharing existing test result data with local authorities and healthcare providers to enable them to better respond to localised outbreaks of the virus.  The test, trace and isolate strategy will not work unless ministers ensure that local public health planners have the tools and resources they need to make it function efficiently (see video here).

Speaking in The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this week (see video here) , I raised my concern that the centralised national approach to this means that we aren’t in a position to undertake the necessary level of testing and tracing to successfully isolate new outbreaks in schools, let alone cities the size of Bristol.

I asked the UK’s National Statistician Sir Ian Diamond, how we get from where we are now to where we need to be – following the example of countries such as South Korea, which has used testing and tracing to avoid a lockdown, control the virus and protect its citizens. Sir Diamond agreed that we do need to work on this and pointed to the new creation of a Joint Biosecurity Centre, which he said would play an important role in harnessing a huge amount of data in a way that we haven’t done so far. But this centre is in its infancy, the crisis is now. 

People are now being told to take risks as part of the changes to the lockdown restrictions – to return to work, to prepare to send their children back to school or nursery and, for those without cars, to use public transport in order to do so.  Without significant localised testing and contact tracing which identifies those who need to self-isolate, this leaves us with very limited protection against this highly contagious disease. 

Almost every country that has managed to get to the next stage has had significant testing and tracing as part of the strategy. The UK needs to do that too and I, and the Labour Party, will continue to push the Government on this.

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