News | Published June 24 2020

PMQs: Labour leader scrutinises test and trace system

During Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer held Boris Johnson to account over the NHS test and trace system currently in place within England.

Sir Keir was critical of the fact that tracers had only successfully contacted little over 10,000 individuals with coronavirus, while official estimates suggest there are 33,000 new cases.

The Labour leader was supportive of the government’s widespread lifting of lockdown restrictions, announced in the Commons on Tuesday, but stressed than "an effective track, trace and isolate system" must be in place.

Sir Keir said: "The prime minister promised a world-beating system would be in place by 1 June.

"I do recognise the hard work that has gone into this, but if two thirds of those with Covid-19 are not being reached and asked to provide contact details, there is a big problem, isn't there?"

The PM hit back at Sir Keir’s criticism, saying: "Contrary to his prognostications of gloom, it [the test and trace system] has got up and running much faster than doubters expected."

Looking to invalidate the Labour leader’s claims, Johnson added that 87,000 close contacts of new Covid-19 cases had been contacted.

Yet, Sir Keir insisted that there was still a “big gap” in the system due to the number of people who were not successfully contacted, accusing Johnson of “not addressing” the original question.

Sir Keir said: "The prime minister risks making the mistakes he made at the beginning of the pandemic - brushing aside challenge, dashing forward and not estimating properly the risk."

According to figures from June 18, the test and trace system has seen 14,045 who tested positive for coronavirus referred. Out of that number, 10,192 disclosed details of their recent close contacts, which amounted to 96,746 individuals; 87,639 of which were successfully contacted and told to self-isolate.

The 33,000 highlighted by Sir Keir is sourced from Office for National Statistics estimates on the number of new cases in the population, but it is not an actual figure of people who have been tested for the virus.

The prime minister accused the Labour leader of “giving a false impression” of the test and trace scheme and its work.

Johnson backed the scheme, adding that it is successfully reaching “the vast majority” of positive Covid-19 cases and reaching people that they have been in close contact with.

Johnson also rebuffed questions about the continued absence of a planned NHS tracking app which would alert individuals who have come into contact with people who subsequently test positive for the virus.

Sir Keir enquired as to when the mobile phone app could be expected to be operational, highlighting that German authorities had already launched a successful app with 12 million downloads.

The prime minister told MPs that Sir Keir was “completely wrong” in his claims, saying that there was "not a single country in the world that has a functional contract tracing app" and stressing that his government had long been clear that an app would simply be “the icing on the cake” for its operational test and trace system.

Johnson added: "What we do have is a fantastic NHS test and trace operation that is already up and running, that is going to get better and better, and will be indispensable to our future success."

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Authored by

Alexander Bridge-Wilkinson
Junior Editor
June 24 2020

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