“In the United Kingdom, despite two million tests having been carried out, there has been no effective tracing in place since 12 March, when tracing was abandoned”, the leader of the opposition said. “That is nearly ten weeks in a critical period without effective tracing”.
As a way of setting himself up for a killer question, I suppose, that wasn’t too bad. But then all we got was this: “That is a huge hole in our defences, isn’t it, prime minister?”
To me, this hardly seems to be a QC-type question. Rather, it was woolly and open-ended, giving the prime minister far too much latitude. But, even then, Johnson’s response was typically economical with the truth.
The “learned gentleman”, he declared, had been given “repeated briefings” on the matter and he was “perfectly aware of the situation in the UK as regards testing and tracing in early March”. This, said Johnson “has been explained many times to him and to the House”.
We have, of course, no means of knowing what has been passed directly to Starmer by way of personal briefings, but an interesting facet of the Commons record is how little the contact tracing situation has even been discussed, much less explained.
Certainly there was no warning to the House that community contact tracing was to be abandoned. For instance, as of 9 March, MPs were assured that “contact tracing is still under way for all cases, including where the route of transmission is not yet clear”.
Then, on 11 March – a day before testing ceased, health secretary Matt Hancock was referring to the infection of Nadine Dorries. “Public Health England”, he told the House, “has world-class expertise in contact tracing, which it initiated as soon as her case was confirmed”.
He then added: “PHE will contact anyone whom it thinks may need testing”. At that point, they had considerably less than 24 hours to do the follow-ups, but then we were never told the results.
By the 16 March, contact tracing had been formally abandoned for four days, yet Hancock was preening himself in front of the House, boasting that: “Our actions have meant that the spread of the virus has been slowed in the UK”, whence he paid tribute to the officials of Public Health England and the NHS “for their exemplary approach to contact tracing and their work so far”.
At no point had Hancock actually told the House that contact tracing had been formally discontinued. That opened the way for shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, during the second reading of the coronavirus Bill on 23 March. Well into the debate, he noted:
The very next day, though, on 24 March, there was a Covid-19 update from Hancock. Much of the concern was about testing and social distancing, yet Jonathan Ashworth did observe that, “Enforced social distancing is welcome … but in many ways it is a blunt tool without ramping up testing and contact tracing”.
Following that, we saw an intervention from SNP MP Owen Thompson, who referred to the “Keeling Study“, which had been published by the government on 20 March, noting that contact tracing has the potential to control Covid-19, although ultimate success relied on the speed and efficacy with which suspect contacts could be contained.
With this in mind, Thompson directly addressed Hancock, asking him: “is the secretary of state ensuring that we have rapid and effective contact tracing? The review showed that such action could reduce the number of people infected by each case from 3.11 to 0.21, and that would be a significant step towards greater containment of the current outbreak”.
Then, and only then, can I find any formal admission from the government that contact tracing might have been curtailed, but without any suggestion that it had been abandoned. In response to Thompson, Hancock said:
Thus, for Johnson yesterday to say that, as regards testing and tracing in early March, this “has been explained many times to … the House”, is simply not true. The House has never been properly (or at all) informed of the reasons why tracing was abandoned, which is doubtless why the Commons Science and Technology Committee is pursuing the issue so assiduously.
Nevertheless, bouncing off Starmer’s question, Johnson burbled that he was confident we would have a test and trace operation. He also claimed that: “we have already recruited 24,000 trackers, and by 1 June we will have 25,000. They will be capable of tracking the contacts of 10,000 new cases a day”.
The Guardian tells us about these “trackers”, and how they lack knowledge of the job and are getting the most perfunctory training. Even the recruits describe the training as “shambolic and inadequate”. But for Johnson, this is no matter. His rhetoric got him through another day, a wholly unexceptional day – just another day for lying.