Onkar Sahota: The government’s response to Covid continues to be inert

Onkar Sahota: The government’s response to Covid continues to be inert

In moving ahead with scrapping all its social distancing rules and mask-wearing requirements after the 19 July, the government has abandoned all sense – as we move deeper into a third wave of the more contagious Delta variant, we’ve well and truly abandoned being “led by the science”. And it long ago abandoned other measures for suppressing the pandemic, not only by failing to put robust controls in at our borders but also by ditching plans to improve the test-and-trace system.

It was a year ago that Baroness Dido Harding pledged to reorganise contact tracing so it is “local by default”. However, the National Audit Office (NAO) recently confirmed that the government is still paying Deloitte consultants £1 million a day to prop it up. Only this week, Harding has claimed test-and-trace has been a success. Back in March, the Chancellor announced in his budget that an additional £15 billion would be invested to strengthen the system. In retrospect, I was naïve to hope that a significant proportion of this money would go towards transferring it away from the private sector to the more capable hands of public local health teams. At the time, I wrote to the now former health secretary, Matt Hancock, asking whether this would be the case. Four months on I still haven’t received a response from the department.

We know that outsourcing firms such as Serco have recently been awarded lucrative contracts to continue running testing centres, but we still don’t really how much cash-strapped local authorities have been given from this £15 billion To  take one London example, Hackney Council had to fight tooth and nail to get a walk-in testing pop-up centre in Dalston at the start of the pandemic when cases were surging in the borough. Like many other boroughs, they have since carried out some fantastic targeted testing programmes. We can only imagine how different things might have been if local authorities had been properly resourced for responding to the Covid-19 outbreak from the start.

Where councils have been backed to play a greater part in contact tracing, there have been noticeable improvements in the speed and number of people being reached. However, with Public Health England about to be replaced by the new UK Health Security Agency, the future role of local authorities in test-and-trace remains unclear. The NAO have also said that local health teams are struggling to get the data they need to efficiently deal with community outbreaks.

With the new health secretary, Sajid Javid, admitting that cases of the Delta variant could reach 100,000 a day over the coming months, this is all very concerning. We now need a renewed focus from ministers on giving councils the resources they need to run contact tracing operations.

The support for positive cases or contacts among people on low incomes has also been lacking. The government has been repeatedly warned that the criteria they set for applying for the £500 self-isolation grant are too tight. Recent figures show that on average six in ten applications are being rejected by councils. We have even seen reports showing that the Treasury actively tried to block access to parts of the scheme. If we want to stop cases spiralling this summer, this shortcoming must be urgently fixed once and for all.

During the pandemic, inertia has been the modus operandi of the government. Another weakness of the test-and-trace system has been the obstinate refusal to acknowledge the wider range of Covid-19 symptoms or make the public aware of them. At the moment, most people can only get a PCR test if they have three core symptoms: fever, cough and a loss of taste and smell. But last month, the highly-respected King’s College Covid-19 Symptom Study identified a shift in the most prevalent symptoms of those who have been infected with the Delta variant – both vaccinated and unvaccinated.

Confusingly, the new symptoms are very similar to those of hay fever, but no provision has been made for people to easily access a PCR test as a precaution. To add to the obfuscation, NHS public messaging is now encouraging people to get a PCR test if they have “mild symptoms” but, in practice, this is not possible. Despite the wealth of evidence offered up by the Symptom Study, the Head of Immunisation from Public Health England (PHE), Dr Mary Ramsay, recently said she was not “convinced yet” the Delta strain was causing alternative symptoms. It is of course very important to be led by the science here, but members of the public need some clarity and updated guidance.

What we are seeing is the government outsourcing their duty of care to protect the most vulnerable in our society to the public and, in the process, shirking its responsibility to fix a malfunctioning test-and-trace system. We can’t let them get away with it.

Dr Onkar Sahota is London Assembly Member for Ealing & Hillingdon and a member of the Assembly’s health committee. Image: Imperial College.

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