Boris Johnson has one week to sort out the test and trace system or consign Britain to a “very bleak winter” of rising coronavirus infection and possible lockdown restrictions, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has warned.
Although the prime minister has promised to increase testing numbers to 500,000 daily by the end of October, Mr Ashworth warned that this would not be soon enough to deal with fast-rising demand which has seen many turned away or told to travel hundreds of miles at a time when infections are doubling every week.
And he said that, rather than increasing capacity, the key decisions Mr Johnson must make now are to move the system away from the private companies which have failed to hit the required 80 per cent contact-tracing level and into the hands of local public health teams, and also to provide better financial support for those told to self-isolate for up to 14 days.
“If the current trend continues and we see this exponential growth carry on, then by next weekend we could be in a similar situation to where we were in early March,” Mr Ashworth told The Independent.
“This is a perilous moment and we didn’t need to be here. If they had listened to the warnings that not only the Labour Party but a whole host of medical experts were putting forward in the summer and got the test and trace and isolate system working really effectively then, we could have put up defences for our communities.
“We knew that there would always be pressure at this point – children, quite rightly, going back to school, people returning to the office and of course this is the time of year when colds and viruses increase anyway. They should have prepared for this moment, but testing capacity remained broadly flat between June and August.
“And it now testing is breaking down, tracing is breaking down, you can’t find the people with the virus, you can’t isolate them and you lose control.”
Recent figures suggest that as few as 20 per cent of those told to self-isolate actually comply, said Mr Ashworth, pointing out that for those on zero-hours contracts or low incomes or with caring responsibilities, staying home for a fortnight unsupported does not seem a viable option.
“Boris Johnson has made misjudgments throughout this crisis and has shown a lack of grip,” said Mr Ashworth. “The question is, has he got the vision and ambition to do what is necessary now to prevent this second spike, prevent a damaging further set of restrictions and drive the infection rates down?
“I would urge him to fix test and trace. He’s probably got a week or so in which he can do it, but if he doesn’t do that we are in a very serious situation.”
Mr Ashworth said Labour would continue to give its backing to public health interventions recommended by the chief medical officers, and said the prime minister should resist pressure from “right-wing Tory MPs who don’t believe that these restrictions are necessary, who think we should be following a let-the-virus-rip through the population approach”.
But he said there was no doubt that a second national lockdown would be “disastrous for the economy”, when coupled with a potential “tsunami” of job losses when chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme ends on 31 October.
“I know that Boris Johnson doesn’t want to be seen as the Prime Minister Who Stole Christmas,” he said. “And we can avoid restrictions, we can avoid lockdown, if we have a decent test, trace and isolate system in place, because that is how you get on top of the virus and have a degree of normality until a vaccine is found.”
Even if Covid is tamed by a vaccine, however, the UK cannot lower its guard against the danger of future pandemics, he said.
Climate change, by forcing wild animals into closer contact with humans, will increase the likelihood of novel illnesses jumping between species, he warned.
And he said that the social inequalities left by 10 years of austerity politics must be addressed in order to stop the UK once again being a perfect breeding-ground for infectious disease.
“A decade of austerity economics didn’t just ill-prepare our health and care systems, it saw deprivation increase, inequality widen, life expectancy go backwards for the poorest in society,” he said.
“Why is this relevant to the pandemic? Because we now that in areas of poverty and deprivation, people get ill sooner and die earlier. They get ill from things like heart disease and particular cancers or type 2 diabetes. These are all the conditions that are particularly vulnerable to Covid. Covid thrives on these health inequalities, and now death rates in the most deprived areas in England are more than double than those in the least deprived areas.”
Mr Ashworth was speaking on the eve of a virtual Labour Connected online conference hastily arranged after the party’s annual gathering in Liverpool had to be cancelled because of the outbreak, and which is set to be dominated by coronavirus.
Despite growing unease over Sir Keir Starmer’s wariness of committing Labour to specific policy promises, the shadow health secretary said he did not expect the new leader to be nailing his colours to the mast on issues like the taxes so far ahead of the election expected in 2024.
But he said Starmer’s keynote speech on Tuesday should make clear his vision for a UK recovering from and changed by the pandemic.
“You’ll see us talking about jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said. “You’ll see us talking about the importance of public services to strengthen the social fabric of society.
“Our priorities are the priorities of the British people – it’s jobs, it’s protecting the NHS and providing decent social care services, schools, making sure our streets are safe and demonstrating that we will protect our country from the pandemics of the future, which I think are a big risk now because of climate change.
“You’ll see Labour sketching a vision of the future on that front, but you won’t get specific itemised manifesto commitments at this stage – we’ve got a few years to go before that.”
Ashworth, who served on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench throughout his four years as leader, admitted that the internal faction-fighting that characterised the period had been “energy-sapping” but insisted it was now a thing of the past.
“I don’t think there’s an appetite for those fights any more,” he said. “The party is united behind Keir Starmer in a way that I don’t think it’s been behind a leader for at least the last six or seven years. People have had enough of the infighting and they want us to focus on delivering for the British people.”
Mr Ashworth insisted that not only the “Red Wall” northern and Midlands constituencies lost to the Tories are “winnable” in 2024, but also seats last held under New Labour like Stevenage, Harlow, Crawley or Milton Keynes. And he brushed off suggestions that Starmer will need to come to an accommodation with the SNP to make up for its lost Scottish strongholds, saying only: “We’re fighting for a majority Labour government.”
“These are the seats that will decide the next general election,” he said. “I’m acutely aware of the mountain we have to climb. But I think we are getting ourselves into good shape to start climbing it.
“I think Keir Starmer has made an excellent start on that front. And I think the Tories are worried about it.”