Debbie Abrahams MP: ‘Testing times for us all’

AS lockdown continues, Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth and a former Public Health Consultant and Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health, looks at what is being done locally and nationally during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As we see the mounting number of people diagnosed with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and with that, the growing number succumbing to Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19), it was right that last week the Government extended the lockdown for a further three weeks.

We need to still focus on three things: reducing the spread of the virus, protecting people who are at most risk of contracting the virus and ensuring that those who do contract it have the treatment and care they need.

Social distancing is to help reduce the virus’ spread. But why are we still allowing businesses undertaking non-essential work, where it is almost impossible to maintain 2m between workers, to stay open? This is one of the biggest concerns of my constituents who work in for example, the distribution sector.

Weeks ago, when I wrote to Matt Hancock, thanking him for his efforts to fight Covid-19, I warned him that the lack of PPE for our frontline workers could mean that not only do they contract it themselves, they also transmit it to those around them.

Frontline NHS staff and carers are dying as a result of inadequate protection, when this was entirely preventable. We should have started to stockpile PPE in January when we saw how infectious this virus was. Why did it took so long to join the EU procurement programme to access PPE and other medical equipment?

Contact tracing could have prevented the virus’ spread back in February, as it has in other countries. It involves finding whoever an infected person has had interactions with in the previous 10 days or so, and then isolating them to prevent further virus spread.

With under 300 people in Public Health England to do this, contact tracing was scaled back in the middle of March whilst for many other countries it was a cornerstone of their preventative work.

On testing, we know the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said all countries should ‘test, test, test’. The WHO even provided guidance of how to develop tests and testing regimes in early March but, again, we have been behind the curve. Now we need to prioritise the testing of vulnerable people and our frontline workers.

Separate to this, developments for antibody tests to tell if we’ve had the virus and are now afforded some immunity, needs to be escalated, without compromising reliability. We don’t want a test which has more than two per cent of false positives, potentially allowing the virus to re-emerge.

More than ever, we need strong, principled leadership – leadership that recognises that we can only beat this virus, and others like it, through international co-operation and collaboration, by sharing data and expertise, even resources.

Across Oldham and Saddleworth, we have seen fantastic examples of us coming together to support each other, which has made me very proud to be your MP. The local Community Hubs which are providing vital food and goods to vulnerable people and the volunteers who are helping with supplies and deliveries, is a lifeline for many. We must make sure that we sustain and build on this community action and collaboration in the future.

This health emergency will be followed by an economic and potentially a social one. We need to be planning for this now. Globally, it is estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic could cost as much as $10 trillion; typically, for each percentage point lost in the economy 10 million more people fall into poverty.

We must make sure that the poor, who are predicted to suffer disproportionately in this crisis, also don’t suffer in its aftermath through widening socioeconomic inequalities, as well as the inequalities in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy.

Out of this emergency, and the tragedy and heartbreak that so many will endure, we must take the opportunity to reflect on the type of society we want, what this means for our economic response and for our welfare state.

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