Julia Lopez debates involving the Department of Health and Social Care during the 2019 Parliament

Local Contact Tracing

Julia Lopez Excerpts
Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Julia Lopez Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Julia Lopez)
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It is a pleasure to close this debate on behalf of the Government, and I would like to thank all hon. and right hon. Members across the House for their varied and considered contributions this afternoon. NHS Test and Trace is one of the strongest weapons in our armoury in this fight against coronavirus. In the last seven days alone, we have processed more than 1.8 million tests, with 219,000 just yesterday. That helps us to break chains of transmission through testing, contact tracing and outbreak management in an end-to-end service to help to prevent the spread of the virus, protect local communities and save lives and livelihoods. As we have heard today, it is both a national and a local operation, with close working already taking place with local authorities. Like others here, I would like to pay tribute to those local authority leaders and directors of public health who have been in the heart of their communities helping to inform both those important strands.

If I may, I will take a moment to reflect on some advances. We have built the largest diagnostic network in British history. Has it been seamless? No. Are we getting there? Yes, absolutely. It is developing all the time.

Suzanne Webb Portrait Suzanne Webb
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Will the Minister give way?

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I am afraid that time is short, so I will continue if I may.

The network is developing all the time, and at the moment includes five major Lighthouse laboratories, 96 NHS labs across 29 pathology networks, and over 500 testing sites. This is a tremendous undertaking in such a short period, and in a period of national crisis. We are doing more testing per head than almost any other major nation. Yesterday, capacity sat at more than 344,000, and we are expanding capacity further to meet a target of half a million tests a day by the end of October. This will include our NHS labs going even further to reach 100,000 tests a day. More labs are joining the network, and we are investing in new technology to process results faster. We are also automating parts of the process, installing new machines and hiring more permanent staff.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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May I make a simple suggestion? It would be really helpful to the vast majority of people who are waiting for tests if there was a simple means of them being able to track where their test had got to, just as happens with Amazon and many thousands of other companies in this country. It would also save vast amounts of time for the company.

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I will take that suggestion back. We have listened to a lot of what has been said today, and there has been a lot of constructive feedback. I just want to let the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) know that we are going to be opening a testing site on the campus in Reading next week.

As many have said, the work that we are doing on test and trace is absolutely critical. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), who is a doctor himself and one of the many Conservative MPs who work in the health service, made a superb contribution using his experience of the system. He rightly pointed out that the vocal comparisons made at the outset of the pandemic with other European nations have suddenly faded away now that the UK is testing more per capita than those same nations. He encouraged us to be realistic about the capacity of the public sector and talked about the challenges of making things happen in practice, rather than simply lecturing from the sidelines about theoretical magic bullets.

The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said that we must test, test, test, and we are. As I mentioned, we hope to be able to do 500,000 tests a day by the end of this month. On the points that he raised about the Slough testing centre, it is critical to underline that people must make sure they have booked their appointment before they arrive on foot or by car. I understand that that test centre is still accessible by both methods.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) talked about the huge role that his town has played in the national effort, from the initial quarantine of British citizens from Wuhan to the incredible Lighthouse project that is employing robotics to boost our testing capacity. We are grateful for that contribution at this time of crisis. As he said, from vaccines to ventilators, medication to PPE, all have been produced at scale very quickly by the private sector, and British companies have achieved tremendous things.

I welcome those Opposition Members who recognised the challenges that we face as a Government and who made constructive contributions, highlighting genuine concerns from constituents. We are working through some of those concerns. However, I share the regret of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who pointed out that the era of constructive opposition from Labour Front Benchers appears this week to be over. It is important in this public health crisis that we reflect on criticism and try very hard to improve. However, this afternoon, they have sought to divide local from national, public from private, UK nation from UK nation, and to undermine public confidence in the system for their own political ends. That is a matter of deep regret for us all.

We recognise that contract tracing needs to reach as many people as possible and we are working hard to make sure that that happens, but this is about partnership, with a national framework and local support. Indeed, we are rolling out that strengthened partnership to more local authorities. We also now have the covid-19 app, downloaded over 17 million times in England and Wales, identifying contacts with those who might have tested positive for the virus, including people you might not know. Work is ongoing to make the Scottish app interoperable.

It of course remains critical that everyone does their bit and follows the rules—hands, face and space, and self-isolating where necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. That is why on 28 September, we introduced financial support to help individuals to self-isolate, meaning that those on low incomes who cannot work from home but need to self-isolate do protect themselves and others. They will receive £500. This is an important step forward in helping enable people to take the action that they should to prevent the spread of disease. We have also put in place requirements for businesses not to stop employees self-isolating if they need to. NHS Test and Trace is also making follow-up phone calls to those who are self-isolating to ensure that they are aware of what local support is available to them and signposting them to local services.

Alongside that, we have set out a series of tougher enforcement measures, targeting those who repeatedly flout the rules, including fines of up to £10,000, but testing and tracing is only one of our lines of defence, so I reinforce once again: if you have symptoms, you must self-isolate in line with public guidance and get a test. Even if you are feeling well, wash your hands regularly, wear a face covering in confined spaces and follow the 2 metre rule on social distancing, because it is these little things that can make a big difference.

In conclusion, we are entering a new and crucial phase of our fight against coronavirus, where the number of cases is rising and we can see that once again, the virus is spreading among the elderly and vulnerable. But we are also in a very different position as a nation from where we were when this virus first hit our shores. We have better data, better treatments and the testing and contact tracing that will be instrumental in getting the virus under control. There is a genuine partnership approach—a national framework with tremendous local support—and I commend the amendment to the House.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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During the Division, Front Benchers must leave via the door in front. Everybody else must leave via the door behind me—socially distanced, please.

Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.