Matt Hancock faced questioning from Greater Manchester MPs over a lack of available tests in the region as the government’s national system came under fire today (Tuesday).
The health secretary admitted the testing system is facing ‘operational challenges’, but insisted thousands of people are being tested in Greater Manchester as a matter of ‘prioritisation’.
Andrew Gwynne, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, told the House local people were being offered tests as far away as Aberdeen – a 700 mile round trip from his constituency – because there were none available in the region.
He said that there were five testing sites in Greater Manchester – a ‘Covid hotspot’ – that were five miles of less from him – but ‘local people can’t get slots’.
“Too many of my constituents have been allocated Telford – a 152 mile round trip, Llandudno – 174 miles, Leicester – 216 miles, Glasgow – 450 miles and Aberdeen – a 716 mile round trip,” he said.
“My constituents don’t want to become super spreaders, so why is this world beating system is going so spectacularly wrong for them?”
Mr Hancock claimed the government had allocated an ‘enormous amount of testing’ to Greater Manchester, but failed to address the issue of those offered tests hundreds of miles away.
“There’s availability in Manchester because of the prioritisation of testing – because its such an outbreak area – we’ve put a huge quantity in,” he responded.
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“Of course, as I have said repeatedly, there are operational challenges but thousands of people every day are being tested in Manchester in order to get a grip of the outbreak there.”
Debbie Abrahams, Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, raised issues around local contact tracing in Greater Manchester and accused the government of ‘still not getting the basics right’.
“I don’t underestimate the challenges that the health secretary has faced over the last few months,” she told MPs.
“But six months on, after many many warnings of what would happen in the likelihood of a second wave without a fully operations test track and isolate system in place before lifting the lockdown, unfortunately the government is still not getting the basics right.
“That’s happening in my own constituency in Oldham. We didn’t have a mobile testing unit turn up. We’re still not getting the data we need to trace Covid-positive cases.”
She asked: “For starters, will the secretary of state sort out the private contractors for the national test and trace system, make sure that directors of public health are getting timely high quality data on Covid cases, including occupational workplace details, and fundamentally make sure our local authorities have the resources they need to trace all contacts and ensure restrictions are understood and observed?”
Mr Hancock told her the answer was ‘yes’.
He added: “In Oldham in particular, where there has been a really very serious outbreak, making sure we have that connection between the national system and the data flowing through to local contact tracers is incredibly important.
“And we’re working on some innovative solutions that have been proposed by the local authorities and others in Manchester to enhance that system as much as we possibly can to keep control of the virus.”
A spokesperson for Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said it was ‘not acceptable’ that people in the region were unable to access tests when ‘Greater Manchester is being hit harder by Covid than any other part of the country’.
They urged the government to ‘act immediately’ in delivering a ‘long-term solution’.
“Our local authorities are doing all they can to increase capacity in places like Bolton but we are hamstrung by serious issues with the national booking system and nationally run sites,” they said.
“The government must act immediately to get this sorted and work with us to establish a better long-term solution to this problem.
“We would ask people to try booking an appointment only if you have coronavirus symptoms or you have been asked to get tested.”