Cllr Susan Dungworth
Cllr Susan Dungworth

Northumberland’s Labour Group is calling for the government to make radical improvements to its management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Labour Group leader Susan Dungworth said: “From locking down too late at the beginning of the pandemic to opening back up too early causing another spike in cases, from using their old boys’ networks to set up companies to provide protective gear to appointing a known business failure to run its track and trace system, the government has mismanaged the pandemic on every level. And tragically, the UK has seen the highest number of deaths across the whole of Europe. The human cost as well as the wasted millions of pounds is unbelievable and much of it, very sadly, avoidable.

“It speaks volumes that the government did not trust the public health departments based in local authorities to carry out track and trace. This is their day job; they know how to do this and they know their local communities better than any national government.

“As we know Northumberland was one of the Northern local authorities that went into a high restrictions level earlier than elsewhere in the country. The county has been under the strictest measures for some time. While this has been very difficult for many individuals, families and business Northumbrians have by and large done what has been asked of them.

“But the restrictions are now becoming complex with the added issue of Christmas thrown in for good measure. We’re asking that the government has an in depth look at what it has been doing and are calling on a number of changes which we see as the only way we will ever create some stability in these very uncertain times.”

When the lockdown was announced, Labour called for:

  • an end to the top-down, centralised model for testing, tracing and isolating once and for all. Local teams must be put in charge;  it’s local knowledge and boots to the ground that are crucial in driving a successful system. Contact tracing and requests for isolation must be locally led, and the government must hand over responsibility from Serco to local teams who know their area;
  • routine testing for all high-risk workplaces and high transmission areas. Routine testing for NHS and care staff is welcome, but others like retail and hospitality staff, transport workers or teachers and pupils in secondary schools should all have access to tests whenever they need them;
  • An overhaul of the failing support for self-isolation. Patrick Vallance said this week that testing “only matters if people isolate as well”. The government must expand eligibility for the £500 test and trace support payment to users of the NHS covid-19 app and reduce the isolation period by using rapid testing. The government must also urgently conduct and publish an assessment of the financial barriers to self-isolation, including the level of Statutory Sick Pay.

The calls came against the backdrop of:

  • Coronavirus remaining a serious threat to the public’s health and that’s why Labour accept the need for continued restrictions. We will always act in the national interest, so we will not vote against these restrictions in Parliament;
  • Labour’s deep concern that the government has failed to use this latest lockdown to put a credible health and economic plan in place;
  • the absence of a functioning testing system, and confused public health messaging. Businesses across the country are crying out for more effective economic support to get them through the winter months. It is short-term government incompetence that is causing long-term damage to the British economy;
  • the urgent need for the government get control of the virus so that our NHS can be protected and our economy recover faster.

Susan Dungworth added: “Throughout this crisis, Labour has urged the government to act responsibly and with speed to take the hard decisions to control the virus. We support necessary measures to protect public health; our priority is to protect lives and livelihoods has been clear.

“The previous three-tier system didn’t work, and we ended up in a national lockdown. Nobody wants a repeat of that. That’s why we are calling on the government to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, and no area is left behind.

“We recognise the need for the continuation of tough restrictions to drive down transmission, but the government must set out how they believe the restrictions will be both effective or fair. The government was cavalier when exiting the last lockdown and it is not yet clear whether the new tiers will do enough to get the r rate below 1 or avoid another lockdown in the New Year.

“The second wave of this virus is having a disproportionate impact on the North and Midlands and the government has really let those places down. Government failure to control the virus means that millions of people have gone months without being able to sit round the kitchen table with their family, and thousands of businesses have been left without adequate support.

“The government has failed to use this lockdown to fix test and trace and now the Prime Minister seems to have stopped mentioning it altogether. Test turnaround times are still far too slow, a fraction of those who are asked to self-isolate actually do, and the centralised Serco model is failing to reach nearly enough close contacts to be effective.

“The recent news about vaccines gives us all hope, but the government is not doing enough to get ready for the huge logistical challenge ahead. The Prime Minister must publish a comprehensive national action plan which can meet the Easter target for vaccine roll out, appoint a minister with responsibility and have a communications plan to tackle vaccine hesitancy.”

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