Coronavirus is as widespread in the capital as it is in the north of England, Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has warned as fears grow of new lockdown measures in the capital.
Thorpe lambasted the failure of the government’s privatised test-and-trace scheme to keep up with demand, saying Boris Johnson’s administration had lost control of the virus in London. He called for the test-and-trace system to be handed over from the private companies Serco and Deloitte to local councils.
The Labour councillor’s comments came after Kevin Fenton, the London director of Public Health England, warned him and the leaders of London’s 31 other boroughs of a “rising tide of coronavirus” in the capital in a private briefing, according to The Times yesterday.
Restrictions have been in place in various parts of the north-east and north-west of England for some time, as well as in Leicester and the West Midlands, with other areas on watchlists. It is now widely feared that Greater London will follow if social distancing measures announced this week fail to choke off the virus’s spread. The capital was added to a “watch list” of areas of greatest concern on Friday morning.
On Thursday, Public Health England revealed that 16 people had tested positive for the virus in Greenwich the previous day – the highest daily figure since April. In Lewisham, six people had tested positive, with 12 testing positive in Bexley.
“I’ve found out a lot of information this week that has been incredibly difficult to hear,” Thorpe told Wednesday night’s full council meeting (from 2hrs, 6mins, 30secs above).
“We found out that over the past three weeks, testing capacity has been stripped out of London and sent to other places – at a time when we need it with everyone going back to school and we have half a million university students arriving,” he said.
“In the middle of August, we were testing 90,000 people a week. Last week, we did 65,000. There was this misnomer that London was doing okay, because we were seeing a graph with a line going down.
“But when Public Health England started digging around, they found we’ve got more people calling 111, we’ve got more people going to hospitals because they cannot get a test and we’ve got more people being admitted to hospital with Covid.
“What is clear is that our epidemic in London is as developed as it is in the north. That is a fact that is acknowledged by many public health professionals. The word ‘exponential’ has been used to describe how this virus is spreading in our community.
“With the complete failure of the Serco-Deloitte test, track and trace system, that’s actually what’s happening here.”
Criticising the government’s struggles with the virus, he said: “The time has come, at the start of wave two, when we must ask ourselves, is this incompetence, dishonesty, or both?”
Education cabinet member Matt Morrow criticised the head of the Serco-Deloitte test and trace service, Conservative peer Baroness Harding, for saying that nobody had predicted the increase in demand for testing. “This struck me as a very strange thing to say, because I thought that everyone had predicted that; as more people had gone back to work, and as they were encouraged to eat out, as more people start travelling, there would be more cases and more need for testing. I thought everyone understood that, but apparently the people running it didn’t.”
Morrow said that 85 per cent of pupils in the borough were back at school, but if one child showed symptoms of coronavirus, they would have to self-isolate for 14 days while their classmates would have to self-isolate for 10 days.
“If a test is available, and it is just a cough, everyone can come back in,” he said. “But without a test being available, we face the possibility of every class in the borough being sent home as soon as a child starts coughing. The government have abandoned us, and it’s just not good enough.”
Fellow cabinet member Jackie Smith called the appointment of Harding, a former telecoms executive, “an insult to the whole of the UK, someone who couldn’t run TalkTalk is who the prime minister thinks is the person to run probably the most important thing we’ll face in our lifetime”.
Former deputy leader David Gardner backed the call for the council to take over the system, saying its public health team was among “the best in the country” and could do the job with the right resources.
The borough’s Conservative opposition leader said: “We all share the frustrations and we all understand the anger about access to testing in this borough and I don’t seek to minimise the anxiety that it’s caused to residents who want to book a test. But I think we should recognise that the government has massively increased the testing capacity since the start of this crisis and that the testing rate is now among the best in the world.
“It clearly isn’t enough, and we do need them to step it up and get a grip on the situation.”
Fletcher said he had been in touch with ministers to raise his concerns, along with fellow Conservatives in London.
Declining to back Thorpe’s motion, he said he did not think that calling for the council to take on test-and-trace was “a workable objective”. Referring to his Labour counterpart, he said: “There is nothing to be gained by him and me having a slanging match.”
However, Thorpe said Fletcher’s reluctance to back the call was “a bit of an insult to our public health team”.
Next Wednesday, a council scrutiny panel will hear evidence about the effects of coronavirus in the borough. Officers will tell them that the borough has been given a “red” rating – along with Lewisham and Bexley – because the number of cases has been higher than expected. While cases in the first wave were mainly among over-40s, there has been a sharp rise among 20 to 39-year-olds “which may reflect the lifting of lockdown measures, particularly an increase in going out for meals or to pubs and also for holiday travel”.
The council’s community hub, which at one point had 400 volunteers working delivering food packages and collecting prescriptions, has now been scaled back to a “residual service”.
Councillors will also begin a review of how Covid-19 has affected the borough’s black and minority ethnic communities.
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