Monday 2 November 2020 / 5:30 AM Jonathan Ashworth

Expanding testing and fixing contact tracing must now be the priority, says Labour

  • Testing and contact tracing should be the priority over the coming weeks
  • Government approach to testing and contact tracing testing is unclear and lacks a coherent plan
  • Weekly testing for key workers must be expanded to identify asymptomatic carriers and protect the most vulnerable
  • Contact tracing must be improved to ensure more people are self-isolating when coming into contact with positive cases

Labour will today say the next weeks must be used to expand testing and fix contact tracing to avoid the mistakes of the summer. Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary will call on ministers to use the next four weeks to overhaul the test and trace regime. Ashworth will call on the Health Secretary to put in place regular testing programmes to ensure key workers and those most at risk are using new, readily available rapid turn-around saliva tests including those developed by UK Universities.

In the House of Commons today Labour will say that the mistakes of the first wave and complacency of the past months cannot be repeated. Alongside a call to use this time to fixing contact tracing, the Shadow Health Secretary will call on the Government to speed up the roll out of rapid turnaround testing, which only has ad-hoc availability in certain hospitals and pilot sites, deploying this in all high-risk workplaces, and high-transmission settings as we head into winter.

Ramped up community testing is vital to help protect jobs and restore confidence in businesses and the economy, and to keep workers, their families and communities safe by identifying those who may be carrying the virus without symptoms. The plan to roll out strategic mass testing would give a clear, coherent roadmap for the next phase of containing the virus. Using saliva testing would also mean the process is quicker and more comfortable than the PCR test used in the current test and trace set-up.

There are lessons to be drawn from UK universities which have been leading the way in piloting regular testing of students. Universities in Southampton, Cambridge, Leicester, East Anglia and Durham all trialled mass testing programmes for their students and some have extended this to their wider communities. This innovation must extend to Government and the expertise of UK universities harnessed to protect local communities.

Ashworth will say that effective, consistent ‘retrospective’ contact tracing that identifies the source of any outbreaks must support this expansion in testing, led by strengthened local public health teams and Directors of Public Health. The mistakes of the current contact tracing must be learnt from and the next four weeks must be used wisely.

Labour will make the case for the regular, weekly, saliva-based testing of:  

  1. High risk workers such as frontline NHS staff, education workers, transport workers, and retail and hospitality workers
  2. At risk groups living in the areas with the highest infection rates.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said:  

“Coronavirus is growing with ferocity and urgent action is needed to bring the R below 1 nationwide which is why Labour urged Boris Johnson to use the opportunity of the half term holiday for a time limited circuit break.

“This didn’t happen, and test and trace have been overwhelmed. Controlling Covid-19 depends on fixing tracing, ensuring the quick turnaround of tests and introducing regular, weekly testing to identify the 70 per cent of carriers who may not have symptoms but can still spread the virus.

“We have seen rapid saliva tests used effectively in UK universities. The government has no excuse to delay their introduction across the country and we’re calling on ministers to roll out these testing innovations now, starting with key workers including all NHS staff, those in care homes and those most at risk.

“Boris Johnson cannot waste the time his late lockdown buys him otherwise all the inevitable sacrifice and economic damage will have been in vain. He must use this time to fix Test and Trace putting local public health experts in control, instigate retrospective contact tracing and expand mass testing using the saliva based testing innovations our Universities have developed.”

Ends

 

Notes

Labour’s calls on mass testing:

  1. Testing high risk workers and in high transmission settings  

Mass testing or virus surveillance programmes should be extended to high transmission settings where social distancing isn’t possible. Testing should also be rolled out to care homes, allowing people to safely visit their families and loved ones. This testing should be regular, and should connect with local contact tracing teams to ensure that outbreaks are effectively traced back to their source.

The first priority must be regular screening for key workers and workers at the highest risk of infection from Covid-19. Health and social care workers, teachers, transport workers and those working in settings where social distancing isn’t always possible should be prioritised.

Construction workers, retail and hospitality staff, factory staff and those who work in security roles should also be given the opportunity to participate in regular screening. These staff are at a higher risk due to working on roles where social distancing isn’t always possible, and roles where they come in contact with a large number of people every day.

Testing should utilise the full range of testing methodologies including saliva testing and rapid turnaround tests. This increase in testing should be further supported by pooled testing in labs.

Despite promises in July that social care staff would receive regular tests, this remains patchy with long waits for results. New technologies should be used to get key workers their results more quickly.

  1. Testing in at risk areas and areas experiencing local restrictions 

Testing should be made more widely available to all those who live in areas that have high infection rates, particularly those with underlying health conditions that leave them at greater risk if they were to catch the virus.

Door to door testing should be a priority in areas that see localised spikes.

Ministers should make greater use of saliva testing in areas experiencing high infection rates and testing should continue in areas that have previously experienced local outbreaks even after the number of cases has reduced, to restore public confidence and enable communities to reopen safely.