Matt Hancock has insisted that England’s system of tracing and testing suspected coronavirus carriers is in the “top tranche” internationally, despite widespread criticism of its performance.
He made the claim during his first appearance in the House of Commons after a summer of confusion, testing mishaps and government U-turns in its policy on Covid-19.
Since its creation in May, NHS test and trace has often failed to reach the 80% of confirmed cases and their contacts that public health experts say is needed for the system to be effective, which is itself vital to help reduce the risk of a second lockdown.
The health secretary was asked by the Conservative MP Jack Lopresti how his assessment of the performance of NHS test and trace compared with the equivalent programme in other countries and what lessons the system in England was learning from its counterparts, including in Germany and South Korea.
Hancock replied: “Well, of course, we learn the lessons and I talk to my international counterparts, including in Germany and South Korea. Actually, compared to international systems … we are now absolutely in the top tranche and we’re constantly looking all around the world to how we can improve the operation of test and trace.”
© Photograph: AFP/Getty Matt Hancock made his claim during his first appearance in the House of Commons after the summer.
However, opposition MPs said that its performance was much less impressive than Hancock claimed. Dr Philippa Whitford, the Scottish National party’s health spokeswoman, stressed that the test-and-trace system in Scotland, which is run by local councils and Public Health Scotland, is getting hold of more than 99% of contacts and asking them to get tested and self-isolate.
She asked Hancock if the Department of Health and Social Care has included any targets for how many contacts should be traced in its contracts with Serco and Sitel, the private firms that are providing the call handlers for England’s test-and-trace system. The minister did not answer.
Justin Madders, a Labour shadow health minister, accused Hancock of wasting public money on private companies that had so far not performed well enough. “In some areas private companies involved in test and trace have been reaching less than half of the contacts they’re supposed to, not the 80% that [Hancock] claims.
“So you don’t need an algorithm to work out that their performance, when compared to local public health teams, is where test and trace is failing. So why then is it that this government is rewarding private sector failure by extending these contracts?” Madders added.
Hancock defended NHS test and trace, which is run by Dido Harding, the Conservative peer who has also been put in charge of the new body that is replacing Public Health England. Last week it reached 84.3% of contacts and asked them to isolate in cases where contact details were given, he said.
“Since its launch we’ve reached over 300,000 people who may have been unwittingly carrying the virus and transmitting it, to ensure that they keep themselves safe and keep their communities safe,” he said.
A new advertising campaign is being launched soon to remind people of what they can do to help reduce the spread of coronavirus, including washing their hands, covering their face, staying 2-metres apart from those nearby and getting tested if they are displaying any symptoms, he said.