Richard North, 21/05/2020  
 


One wonders why the "forensic mind" of Keir Starmer couldn't come up with something better for what was a rather lacklustre PMQs.

"In the United Kingdom, despite two million tests having been carried out, there has been no effective tracing in place since 12 March, when tracing was abandoned", the leader of the opposition said. "That is nearly ten weeks in a critical period without effective tracing".

As a way of setting himself up for a killer question, I suppose, that wasn't too bad. But then all we got was this: "That is a huge hole in our defences, isn’t it, prime minister?"

To me, this hardly seems to be a QC-type question. Rather, it was woolly and open-ended, giving the prime minister far too much latitude. But, even then, Johnson's response was typically economical with the truth.

The "learned gentleman", he declared, had been given "repeated briefings" on the matter and he was "perfectly aware of the situation in the UK as regards testing and tracing in early March". This, said Johnson "has been explained many times to him and to the House".

We have, of course, no means of knowing what has been passed directly to Starmer by way of personal briefings, but an interesting facet of the Commons record is how little the contact tracing situation has even been discussed, much less explained.

Certainly there was no warning to the House that community contact tracing was to be abandoned. For instance, as of 9 March, MPs were assured that "contact tracing is still under way for all cases, including where the route of transmission is not yet clear".

Then, on 11 March - a day before testing ceased, health secretary Matt Hancock was referring to the infection of Nadine Dorries. "Public Health England", he told the House, "has world-class expertise in contact tracing, which it initiated as soon as her case was confirmed".

He then added: "PHE will contact anyone whom it thinks may need testing". At that point, they had considerably less than 24 hours to do the follow-ups, but then we were never told the results.

By the 16 March, contact tracing had been formally abandoned for four days, yet Hancock was preening himself in front of the House, boasting that: "Our actions have meant that the spread of the virus has been slowed in the UK", whence he paid tribute to the officials of Public Health England and the NHS "for their exemplary approach to contact tracing and their work so far".

At no point had Hancock actually told the House that contact tracing had been formally discontinued. That opened the way for shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, during the second reading of the coronavirus Bill on 23 March. Well into the debate, he noted:
We need more testing, we need more contact tracing and we need more isolation to break the chains of transmission. The World Health Organisation has famously instructed the world to test, test, test - and we agree.
If Ashworth actually knew that contact tracing had been abandoned for 11 days, he gave no sign of it, and nor did former secretary of state Jeremy Hunt, who took up the call, declaring:
all our public focus has been on social distancing, but testing and contact tracing to break the chain of transmission are every bit as important, if not more important. Those countries that have turned back the virus rigorously track and test every case and every suspected case, then identify every single person with whom a Covid-19 patient has been in contact to take them out of circulation. As a result, those countries have avoided the dramatic measures and some of the economic damage that we have seen in Europe.
Continuing with that theme, he added: "Now is the time for a massive national mobilisation behind testing and contact tracing", and then he said:
Contact tracing is manpower-intensive, yet Public Health England has just 280 people devoted to this. We probably need 280 people in every city and county in the country. Every local government official doing planning applications, every civil servant working on non-corona issues and volunteers all should be mobilised in this vital national task.
Even then he had not finished, making a final input on the subject with this intervention:
Testing is also vital for the economy. If we are going to have a year of stop-go as we try to protect the NHS if the virus comes back, testing and contact tracing allows an infinitely more targeted approach and way to control the spread of the virus than economic measures that are much more blunderbuss and do much more damage.
If Hancock, who was present at the opening of the debate, even heard these comments is not clear - but neither he nor any government representative responded. There was and had been no statement telling members that contact tracing had been abandoned.

The very next day, though, on 24 March, there was a Covid-19 update from Hancock. Much of the concern was about testing and social distancing, yet Jonathan Ashworth did observe that, "Enforced social distancing is welcome … but in many ways it is a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing".

Following that, we saw an intervention from SNP MP Owen Thompson, who referred to the "Keeling Study", which had been published by the government on 20 March, noting that contact tracing has the potential to control Covid-19, although ultimate success relied on the speed and efficacy with which suspect contacts could be contained.

With this in mind, Thompson directly addressed Hancock, asking him: "is the secretary of state ensuring that we have rapid and effective contact tracing? The review showed that such action could reduce the number of people infected by each case from 3.11 to 0.21, and that would be a significant step towards greater containment of the current outbreak".

Then, and only then, can I find any formal admission from the government that contact tracing might have been curtailed, but without any suggestion that it had been abandoned. In response to Thompson, Hancock said:
The hon. Gentleman is right that contact tracing is incredibly important, and the amount of contact tracing that we have done is one of the reasons why we have managed to be behind other European countries in the curve. At this stage in the epidemic, it is not possible to have contact tracing for everybody, as we can when there is a very small number. We are looking at how we can do that better and enable individuals to contact trace, including by using technology.
This was twelve days after contact tracing had been completely abandoned, yet all Hancock could admit was that, "it is not possible to have contact tracing for everybody". Technically, this could be considered a lie by omission. It certainly was not a fulsome statement on the state of play.

Thus, for Johnson yesterday to say that, as regards testing and tracing in early March, this "has been explained many times to … the House", is simply not true. The House has never been properly (or at all) informed of the reasons why tracing was abandoned, which is doubtless why the Commons Science and Technology Committee is pursuing the issue so assiduously.

Nevertheless, bouncing off Starmer's question, Johnson burbled that he was confident we would have a test and trace operation. He also claimed that: "we have already recruited 24,000 trackers, and by 1 June we will have 25,000. They will be capable of tracking the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day".

The Guardian tells us about these "trackers", and how they lack knowledge of the job and are getting the most perfunctory training. Even the recruits describe the training as "shambolic and inadequate". But for Johnson, this is no matter. His rhetoric got him through another day, a wholly unexceptional day - just another day for lying.






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