Leeds MP Rachel Reeves brands Government's coronavirus testing approach a 'shambles'

Leeds MP Rachel Reeves has branded the Government's testing approach a 'shambles' as it was revealed only 1,500 contact tracers out of a promised 18,000 had been appointed by the start of this week.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said on Friday that while "about 15,000" applications have been received, only 1,500 people have currently been hired.

The figures have been disputed by the Prime Minister's spokesman who said plans to have 18,000 contact tracers by the end of next week are still "on course" and that Mr Lewis's figure of 1,500 was "a little behind where we are".

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But in a letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, Rachel Reeves, Leeds West Labour MP and shadow cabinet office minister, called for answers as to whether there will be enough contact tracers in place to allow the UK to ease its way out of the current lockdown.

Leeds West Labour MP Rachel Reeves, who has called the Government's testing approach a 'shambles'.

Ms Reeves said Labour thought it a "mistake" to have stopped contact tracing in March and said it "supported" moves to establish a "comprehensive strategy for contact tracing both through the use of a suitable mobile phone app and a manual tracing service".

Addressing concerns surrounding some children returning to school in June, Ms Reeves said it was the Government's responsibility to make sure schools were safe and to have a comprehensive contact tracing system in place.

"The Government do need to reassure teachers, teaching staff at schools, parents and pupils that it is safe to return and unless they do that, teachers aren't going to go back into the classroom and parents aren't going to send the young people," Ms Reeves told Sky News.

Describing some of the steps needed to ensure this, she added: "That's through a combination of measures. Testing for example, where I'm afraid the approach so far has been a shambles, ensuring that there are enough rooms in the class to teach children if the class sizes are going to be reduced.

"The onus really is on Government to prove that it is safe and to work with the teachers and the teaching unions rather than treating them as some sort of enemy to progress, because that's not going to help anyone."

Ministers hope contact tracing undertaken by 18,000 recruits will reduce transmission by identifying and alerting people who may have been exposed to the virus, so that they can protect themselves and others around them by self-isolating.

But on Friday, Mr Lewis told Sky News: "I don't think we've got to 18,000 just yet, I think there's about 15,000 applications, we're looking to as you say get up to 18,000."

Pushed again on how many of the 15,000 applicants have been appointed, he added: "As of this morning, I'm not sure of exactly how many of the 15,000 have been hired, earlier in the week it was about 1,500, it would have gone up since then."

However, responding to Mr Lewis's comments, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The numbers he had were a little behind where we are, so I think it was just from a couple of days ago.

"I don't have a more up-to-date number but I know that we have recruited significantly more than the 1,500 he spoke about and we are on course to have the 18,000 in place next week."

In her letter to Mr Gove, Ms Reeves also questioned the reported hiring of private firm Serco to put in place the manual contact tracing team.

She said: "It is my understanding from these reports that Serco have been asked to provide 18,000 staff, despite some public health professionals suggesting as many as 50,000 staff are needed, and that these staff will be provided with just one day of training before starting work.

"Contact tracing is a skilled role, handling highly sensitive information, the consequences of which are profound both in terms of public health and the economy.

"Yet job advertisements for manual contact tracing staff are presented as a 'work from home opportunity', at an hourly rate of less than the living wage."

It comes as advertisements by high street pharmacist Boots seeking to recruit an army of hundreds of unpaid volunteers to test people for coronavirus sparked criticism, with unions saying it took the "notion of volunteering way too far".

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