Is test and trace really this government’s greatest failing?

Angela Rayner’s PMQs debut was passionate, and strangely nostalgic

This week brought both good and bad news for the leader of the Labour party. Fearing one of his children had possible Covid symptoms in his household, Keir Starmer ordered a test – and happily it came out negative. But, frustratingly, the test results arrived within forty-eight hours.

Labour is majoring on the failings of the test and trace system as the main thrust of its attacks on the government’s Covid strategy. Test and trace was the subject of all six of Starmer’s questions to the prime minister last Wednesday and it was the primary theme again today, with Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, opening the bowling in his absence.

Rayner began by reading out a message she had received “by a man called Keir.” He was “doing the right thing” by working from home but had nevertheless “had to wait” for his child’s test results, despite the prime minister’s promise of results within 24 hours. This man named Keir, if truth be told, had not actually been seriously inconvenienced, and given that he awoke this morning with the all clear for his child, Boris Johnson cruelly mused, “I don’t quite know why he is not here.” The prime minister then proceeded to point out, as Labour now continually gives him the opportunity to do so, that Britain is conducting more tests than any other country in Europe and that 89% of in-person test-takers were getting their results within the next day.

With 240,000 tests processed per day, is this really so terrible a record that it should remain the main theme of Labour’s assault rather than, say, whether the “rule of six” makes any sense or fourteen days of quarantine (the French find seven to be suffice) is really necessary? The testing system may indeed prove a useful political fall guy if a massive and sustained surge in Covid cases results in the government’s claims to competence being eroded further, but Labour has put a lot of eggs in this basket.

The prime minister, of course, gave his hostage to fortune when he promised a test and trace system that would be “world beating,” ensuring the boast would be flung back at him whenever someone, somewhere, was let down. But it is hard to reconcile what has been achieved from a near standing start with Angela Rayner’s insistence that “the testing system is collapsing”.

The point that could be made – but was missed at today’s PMQs – was that whilst testing may expanded nationwide, it was insufficient in key hotspot areas where it was needed most and where time is particularly of the essence. Rayner preferred to keep it personal, claiming that Johnson was blaming the public for requesting tests in such large numbers and that “the next time a man with Covid symptoms drives from London to Durham it will probably be for the nearest Covid test.” In a non-socially distanced chamber this might have got the laugh it deserved.

Rayner combines great personableness, amiability even, with the hardwired insistence that those in the blue tribe are callous swines. It’s a class war rhetoric we have all missed since Jeremy Corbyn gave way to Sir Keir, five months ago. At a time when so much has been upended, it felt reassuring to have it back.

It’s a class war rhetoric we have all missed since Jeremy Corbyn gave way to Sir Keir, five months ago

Boris Johnson used to earn £2,300 an hour, Rayner tutted, but did he know what the pay rate was for a care worker in this country? Ever the gentleman, Johnson did not steal her punchline – “the shameful fact is that it is barely more than £8 an hour.”

Rayner was not done. Perhaps imagining she was facing Super Mac (if you’ve faced one Old Etonian prime minister you’ve faced the lot …) she contrasted a government, “staring down the barrel of a second wave with no plan for the looming crisis” whilst prioritising the restoration of grouse-shooting. It was not clear from her mode of delivery that her barrel metaphor and shooting were consciously linked, but the point she really wanted to stress was that the prime minister had wealthy friends who own shooting estates. Suspicious?

Boris Johnson is also too much a pro to fall for indulging this line of inquiry. He instead reeled off a list of “the priorities of the British people.” Remarkably, these were also the main bullet-points of the 2019 Conservative party manifesto. To this the prime minister received that increasingly rare response from his own benches – cheers.

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