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Source: Labour List UK

© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth has emphasised the need to fix testing and tracing after Matt Hancock announced that a “new variant” of coronavirus was identified in the UK and London is set to enter Tier 3.

Responding to a Covid update from the Health Secretary in parliament this afternoon, the Shadow Health Secretary asked the government to keep MPs updated on the new variant of the virus.

Hancock had used his parliamentary statement this afternoon to warn that a new variant is “growing faster than the existing variants” and “may be associated with faster spread in the South East of England”.

He said: “We’ve currently identified over a thousand cases of this variant, predominately in the South of England although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different areas and numbers are increasingly significantly.”

But Hancock told MPs that “the medical advice we have is that it is highly unlikely this new variant will impinge the vaccine” and there is no evidence so far that the new variant is likely to cause worse ill health than that already seen.

Ashworth also commented this afternoon on the increasing number of cases and hospital admissions across the country, and expressed concern over the performance of the government’s tier system of Covid restrictions.

The Labour frontbencher said: “Last week, the England-wide rate was 159 per 100,000. Now it’s 188 per 100,000. That’s a 20% increase. Across London cases have increased 30% in a week, the East of England 36%.

“None of us are surprised at the action he is taking today. Indeed he was warned that Tier 2 wouldn’t be enough to contain the spread of this virus. Now it looks like in some areas, such as Kent, Tier 3 isn’t enough to contain the spread either.”

Hancock announced to parliament that the capital, along with parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, would enter Tier 3 from Wednesday. The next review of Covid cases and measures will take place on December 23rd and weekly thereafter.

Ashworth added: “As things stand, we are heading into the Christmas easing with diminishing headroom. The buffer zone these tiers were supposed to provide is getting much thinner. So what is his plan to keep people safe through Christmas?

“What is his plan to keep people safe through Christmas and to avoid huge pressures in the NHS in January? What is his plan to support an exhausted, understaffed NHS through January to deliver the care patients will need?

“And is he confident that our NHS won’t be so overwhelmed in January that it impacts the vaccination programme?”

The Shadow Health Secretary told the chamber that the response in England to Covid “could have been stronger had Serco’s contact tracing not left a gaping hole in our defences”, and he criticised the performance of the outsourced tracing system.

He highlighted that many local authorities in London had seen poor levels of contact tracing by the outsourced provider, such as reaching only 65% of Covid contacts in Islington, 60% in Tower Hamlets and 61% in Barking.

Ashworth reminded MPs that the test and trace system currently costs the taxpayer £22bn, which the Shadow Health Secretary pointed out is more than the budgets of both the police and fire services combined.

“Serco have subcontracted to 21 other firms offering little training to staff,” Ashworth told the Commons. “With some in call centres alongside others making sales calls for gambling websites.”

Reiterating the call for more local authority involvement, he said: “Surely, it’s time to scrap Serco and put all public health teams in the lead doing the retrospective cluster busting contact tracing we need.”

The transition to the more severe set of Covid restrictions for London and parts of the South East will see thousands of bars, pubs and restaurants close. They will still be able to operate takeaway, delivery and click and collect services.

Under Tier 3 restrictions, people are not allowed to meet socially indoors or in private gardens with anyone they do not live with or with anyone not in their support bubble. But rules will be relaxed for five days over Christmas.

London mayor Sadiq Khan and London Councils chair Georgia Gould this morning called on the Prime Minister to consider closing secondary schools early and for a longer period over the festive period.

Khan and Gould demanded an immediate increase in the level of Covid testing provision in London and a compensation scheme to be put in place for businesses ahead of any further restrictions being imposed on the city.

Commenting on the decision made this afternoon to move London into the highest tier, Khan said: “This is incredibly disappointing for our businesses who have suffered so much already this year.

“But it’s clear that the virus is accelerating in the wrong direction once again across London and the lives of Londoners are at risk.”

The latest data showed almost 24,000 confirmed cases in London in a week and cases rising in every borough. Public Health England figures show that Havering in East London has the highest proportion of cases, at 470 per 100,000 people.

The greatest surge of coronavirus cases in the capital, compared with the number of cases recorded in the previous week, has been seen in the North London borough of Enfield, which saw a dramatic increase of 74.1%.

Asked about relaxing Covid rules over Christmas, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson this morning said: “There is no plan to review the Christmas guidance. But what we’ve said alongside that is that the public should continue to be cautious.”

On whether Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions could be ‘toughened up’, the spokesperson said: “We’ve set out Tier 3 and what it entails. It’s important that the public continue to adhere to the guidance.”

MIL OSI United Kingdom