Coronavirus: Under-fire test and trace system is envy of the world, Matt Hancock claims

It is ‘working so effectively’ health secretary says - and admiring countries ask ‘how did you manage to build this capacity so fast?’ 

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 13 October 2020 16:59 BST
Matt Hancock claims test-and-trace system is the envy of the world

England’s test-and-trace system is the envy of the world, Matt Hancock has claimed – a day after government scientists warned it is failing badly.

The health secretary provoked heckles in the Commons, as he rejected MPs’ criticism that the centralised system he set up is unable to halt coronavirus transmission.

“We don’t get it when I talk to my international colleagues,” he insisted, adding: ‘They ask the question ‘how did you manage to build this capacity so fast’ and that is the truth of it.”

Minutes from the Sage committee pointed to “relatively low levels of engagement” with test-and-trace, “coupled with testing delays” – after people were told to travel hundreds of miles across the country.

It suggested the system – long seen as the crucial mechanism to prevent a second wave of Covid-19 – was “having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment”.

But Mr Hancock hailed an “enormous system that is working so effectively”, telling his critics: “To argue that is at the root of this challenge, that is unfortunately to miss the big picture.”

The reality was that social contact would cause transmission “until we have a vaccine or a massive, massive testing capacity that nobody yet has”, he argued.

Mr Hancock was speaking as MPs debated the new three-tier system for Covid-19 restrictions – after ministers were forced to concede the Commons’ prior authorisation.

However, despite some criticism from Tory backbenchers, the measures are expected to pass, with Labour abstaining, as is the 10pm shutdown of pubs.

Jon Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, seized on the Sage minutes to ask: “What precise moment did the prime minister stop following the science?

“Sage advised the government to take action in March, but the prime minister was too slow. Now, after the prime minister spoke, we see yet again he is being advised to take action and has so far refused.

“But it's the same virus, the same delays, the same country and the same government making the same mistakes again. Our constituents will ask is history repeating itself?”

Mark Harper, a former Tory chief whip urged Mr Hancock to ensure more of the contact tracing is done by local directors of public health, rather than centrally.

And Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, called for the 10pm curfew should be scrapped or “softened”, and for airport testing to ease the “hugely damaging” quarantine arrangements.

But the health secretary claimed a fall in alcohol-related A&E admissions late at night was “direct” evidence that the curfew is working.

And he launched a strong attack on the Great Barrington Declaration, which advocates a return to “life as normal” for all the most vulnerable – while herd immunity is built up.

“Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity, like measles and malaria and Aids and flu,” Mr Hancock said.

He also dismissed suggestions that elderly and vulnerable people should be segregated, adding: “We are not the kind of country that abandons our vulnerable or just locks them up.”

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