Another day another Covid testing problem that could have far reaching consequences.
Today a health minister has failed to rule out people having to pay for Covid-19 tests under the Government’s proposed mass testing programme.
Helen Whately was challenged in the Commons by her Labour opposite number Justin Madders to “give us a definite answer today” on whether people would have to pay for the so-called Moonshot tests.
At a Downing Street press conference last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined the ambitious Operation Moonshot, with a goal of “literally millions of tests” a day to help people “behave in a more normal way, in the knowledge they cannot infect anyone else with the virus”.
During health questions on Tuesday, Mr Madders said: “We have real concerns about creating a two-tier system for tests where some people have to pay.
“It undermines the fundamental principle of the NHS and will do nothing to stop the spread of the virus. So will the minister give us a definite answer today – are some people going to have to pay to access the Moonshot test, yes or no?”
Ms Whately replied: “I don’t recognise the comments that he’s making about the suggestion that there should be a two-tier system.
“What we have in place is a universal system where everybody who has symptoms is able to access a test, and as he will well know, where we know that we have particular risks, like for those in care home settings.
“There are also tests for those who don’t have symptoms so we can pick up outbreaks early on, and a huge amount of resource and investment is going into developing new technologies for testing, easier testing, quicker tests and tests that can be done at greater scale, because this is all part of building up our testing capacity so we can suppress this horrid virus.”
Later, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs he is in the process of setting up clinics to help patients with the effects of long Covid.
Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, asked when these specialist units would open to help people still suffering symptoms months after they first caught the virus.
Mr Hancock replied: “I know very well the impact of long Covid and it’s something that I understand deeply.
“We are setting up those clinics, we’re in the process of doing so and there will be further information on this very shortly.”
Labour MPs also challenged ministers on the Government’s record on testing.
Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) raised school closures, adding: “Serco Test and Trace has been an unmitigated disaster – it’s more than an extraordinary waste of public money, it’s a public health crisis.
“To make matters worse, ministers signed off on a wholly inappropriate Excel spreadsheet, blowing billions and leaving thousands of contacts untraced. When does she think her boss, the Secretary of State, will begin to take personal responsibility for this mess?”
Ms Whately replied: “Since the NHS Test and Trace system started it has contacted 78.5% of those who have tested positive and then 77% of their contacts have been reached.”
She added: “In fact, the Secretary of State spent an hour and a half in this chamber yesterday answering colleagues’ questions about the performance of that system.”
Labour’s Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) said: “Yesterday the Health Secretary told me, ‘we have been putting that money into councils’. What money is that? £7 million he announced, split between nine councils. That is against £12 billion for Serco. That’s not putting that extra money into councils, is it?
“So can I ask him to show respect for members of this House, and more importantly for our constituents, and answer the question: when is he going to stop relying on the outsourcing giants and support local public health teams with the funds they need – because that is how he and this country is going to fix Test, Trace and Isolate.”
Mr Hancock replied: “We have an open dialogue with councils and with local mayors about what needs to be done. But I would just urge him that on behalf of all of his constituents in Sefton, that I think it is better to support the whole effort to control this virus, not just part of it.”