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LABOUR sounded the alarm today over fears that councils will be unable to safely lift Leicester-style local coronavirus lockdowns for months on end due to lack of cash and resources.
Sir Keir Starmer warned that any imposed local lockdowns could stretch on for “months and months and months” due to local authorities’ financial “black holes” — collectively amounting to £10 billion — and a lack of an effective contact-tracing system.
Speaking to the Local Government Association annual conference, taking place online, the Labour leader called for councils to be given extra powers to enforce local lockdown regulations.
He said that councils would have to cut local services and staff to make ends meet without extra central-government funding.
Unless the situation improved, Sir Keir said, it could be very difficult safely to lift local lockdowns once they have been imposed.
“After a decade of cuts, the coronavirus crisis and the government’s inaction have created a perfect storm,” he said.
During Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), Sir Keir also accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of being slow to respond to the coronavirus upsurge in Leicester, resulting in the city being put into lockdown on Tuesday.
Sir Keir said that the PM had presided over a “lost week” when action could have been taken sooner as he criticised Mr Johnson’s “whack-a-mole” strategy for tackling clusters of coronavirus outbreaks.
In response, Mr Johnson insisted that action had been taken swiftly and defended the sharing of testing figures with local leaders.
The clash came amid criticism of the way Public Health England (PHE) and the government are handling coronavirus case data, with accusations of long delays in sharing information with regional public-health experts.
Health Minister Nadine Dorries revealed last month that Deloitte’s coronavirus testing contract did not required the firm to report positive cases to PHE or local authorities.
A PHE regional map for testing across England has been issued showing the towns and cities suffering high numbers of cases.
The data covers all mass testing in England, including that carried out in NHS and PHE labs — known as pillar one — plus all community testing, drive-throughs and tests sent to people’s homes, known as pillar two.
The map shows that the worst affected regions are Leicester, Barnsley, Bradford and Rochdale. The six next-worst-affected areas are Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Tameside, Oldham, Kirklees and Rotherham.
During PMQs, Sir Keir said that Leicester’s local authority had data for pillar-one tests but not pillar two, which meant that the council believed there were “80 positive tests in the last fortnight when the real figure was 944.” It was only last Thursday that the full information was provided, he said.
The Labour leader demanded a “cast-iron guarantee” that no other authority would be put in the same position as Leicester, as “there are now real fears of further local lockdowns across the country.”
His comments came as Labour demanded urgent government action last night to ensure that local lockdowns are robust enough to prevent a second wave.
Shadow communities & local-government secretary Steve Reed said: “The lack of a functioning test, track & trace system, coupled with their failure to give councils the power to take action quickly, could lead to local outbreaks becoming deadly national ones.
“The government must not waste any more time, we are facing the risk of a deadly second wave of infections and a second national lockdown fatal for both lives and livelihoods across the country."
Dr John Lister, of NHS campaign group Health Emergency, noted that pillar-two data for Leicester accounted for 90 per cent of cases there.
He condemned the government for “paying a fortune” to “incompetent” private companies — such as Deloitte for Covid testing and Serco for the contact-tracing system — that collect data without making it public or passing it on to PHE.
Mr Lister told the Star that it was the “most dysfunctional way of commissioning information.”
He added: “To relax restrictions, we have got to have track & trace, and we don’t have either that or proper reliable testing — and we are not following up on the testing that we do.
“It is a house of cards in which no-one has managed to stand the bottom card up. It is an endless succession of failures and a perfect storm of complete incompetence.”
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: "Getting the nation back to work is vital for jobs and the economy, but it has to be done in a way that doesn't squander progress already made.
"The track and trace system still needs improvement and information about local Covid-19 hotspots must be shared more quickly, so spikes in infections can be quickly stamped out.
"The NHS and care sectors must be protected from a second wave."
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