View from Westminster: Losing control of the testing is why the government is losing control of the virus

News Desk (30 September, 2020)

All our efforts to adhere to social distancing rules are undermined without testing

31615Harriet Harman

I am being contacted by a growing number of people in Camberwell and Peckham who tell me they are unwell with COVID systems, but when they log onto the government’s online testing system are told that there are no tests available, or are told to go to the “nearest COVID testing site” – over 500 miles away – in Scotland!

Losing control of testing is why the government is losing control of the virus and why we’ve ended up with more and more restrictions. If you can’t test, you can’t trace. If you can’t trace, you can’t isolate. If you don’t isolate, the virus spreads. All our efforts to adhere to social distancing rules are undermined without testing.

The government says this is due to more people wanting tests. But having, over the summer, told employees to go back to their workplaces and with the reopening of schools and universities there was obviously going to be increased demand for tests as more people mingled and inevitable got colds and flu. The government should have anticipated this and used the summer to ensure the testing system was working properly. But now because of the government’s failure to plan there are increasing numbers of teachers and pupils not able to be in school, and students are trapped in halls, miles from home, being told they may not be able to go home for Christmas. In hospitals, operations are being cancelled while NHS staff cant work as they wait for tests. Hundreds of ill people every day are being told there are no tests.

Local headteachers tell me they are having to make very difficult decisions choices about whether a child with a cough should be sent home. If a child is positive the whole year group will be sent home. One primary headteacher told me that her school was only given 10 COVID test kits. She’s used them and can’t get any more. Another head said even when they send off the tests the results don’t come back quickly enough to make decisions. One of his teachers had been waiting 13 days for test results! I’m pressing the government for fast tests for staff and students so more vital school time is not lost.

I support the COVID restrictions but I am also concerned that they will not work without testing and financial support for those who ought to be staying at home. Many businesses left out of support have no idea of when they can safely reopen without testing.

The government is neglecting whole sectors of the economy which generate billions in tax revenue and employ more than a millions of workers. In his latest announcement the chancellor failed to mention businesses that are shut down or trading with reduced capacity including: the wedding industry, events and exhibitions, the nighttime economy, festivals, sports venues and theatres. There was no acknowledgement at all about their plight.

The vast majority of these jobs are perfectly viable with a functioning test system, and deserve support from government during pandemic restrictions. Health measures and economic measures are now dangerously out of sync. In Germany you can get a test and results the same day. In the UK, only one in 10 tests are processed in 24 hours, so most people can’t find out if they’re carrying the virus or not.

We all want to avoid getting the virus and spreading it, And no one wants to endure further restrictions or another national lockdown. More than six months after the pandemic started the government needs to get a grip on the test and trace system, and fast.

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