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Serco is one of two companies who have been contracted to provide most of the Government’s contact tracing service (PA)


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Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has called on the Government to cease funding to a major test and trace contractor in favour of locally-led contact tracing measures.

In a letter to the Health Secretary, Mr Ashworth and shadow cabinet secretary Rachel Reeves expressed concern over the contract with Serco to deliver contact tracing services.

Ministers are expected to announce later this month whether they will expand their agreement with the company, increasing the value of the contract from £108 million to £410 million.

But Mr Ashworth and Ms Reeves have branded the operation as “ineffective and not fit for purpose” and are calling for no further funding to be given to the company.

They wrote: “The Prime Minister promised the country that we would have a ‘world-beating’ contact tracing system by June 1st and we dispute that this has been achieved. 

“The stakes are too high to tolerate failure in either the operation or the design of this crucial public service.

The shadow ministers continued: “Concerns about whether the system is fit for purpose must be urgently addressed to prevent the devastating consequences of a rise in infections in autumn and winter and break the chains of transmission to contain local outbreaks.

“We recognise that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a significant challenge to government, however, there is real concern at the failure of the current centralised system led by Serco to operate effectively.

“We cannot afford for the test and trace system to continue as it is without rapid reform.”

Labour is now reiterating its calls for “locally-led contact tracing measures” coordinated by NHS Trusts and public health teams. 

And they are demanding answers from the Government on details of Serco’s operation, including what targets the company has been set and why it is failing to reach many contacts.

It comes after official data published last week revealed that over 4,800 close contacts of those who had tested positive were not reached by Serco’s service.

The Department for Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.

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Coronavirus: Health chief hails Africa’s fight against Covid-19

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  • Coronavirus pandemic

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image captionMost African states urged people to wear masks from the beginning of the outbreak

The head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control has praised African states for managing to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Africa has seen about 1.4 million cases, and 34,000 deaths since March.

These figures are far lower than those in Europe, Asia or the Americas, with reported cases continuing to decline.

Early interventions played a crucial role in curbing the virus’ spread, John Nkengasong told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

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He described as “false” suggestions that cases and deaths in Africa were significantly under-reported.

“We may not have been picking up all the cases, just like in other parts of the world… but we are not seeing people around the continent falling dead on the streets or mass burials going on,” Dr Nkengasong said.

All African states introduced a series of measures to tackle the virus as soon as the first cases were reported in March. Many, including South Africa, introduced nationwide lockdowns, but others such as Ethiopia opted for less strict measures.

Dr Nkengasong, however, attributed the low number to a “joint continental effort”, which focused on “scaling up testing and following up contact tracing and very importantly masking”, or the wearing of face masks.

“In many countries, including Ethiopia where I live, if you go to the streets of Addis Ababa you will see there is almost 100% masking,” he added.

What other reasons did he give?

Africa’s relatively young population also contributed to the low number of cases, Dr Nkengasong said.

Furthermore, the emphasis on community-driven initiatives, and experience in contact-tracing from fighting diseases like Ebola, had helped countries to tackle the virus, he said.

“This virus is in the community, and without a strong community response and strong community engagement there is no chance we can fight it,” Dr Nkengasong added.

Warning over second wave

Analysis by Anne Soy, BBC News, Nairobi

The drop in the number of Covid-19 cases on the continent is mainly driven by South Africa, which accounts for nearly half of Africa’s cases but also a big proportion of tests.

As of Tuesday, South Africa had conducted more than four million tests. In comparison, the entire continent of more than 50 countries crossed the 10 million tests mark a month ago.

image copyrightReuters
image captionVery few hospitals in South Africa were overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients

By international standards, this is a relatively low number, and it is blamed on global shortages of testing equipment and a lack of manufacturing in Africa. It continues to undermine the Africa “success” story.

While there may be cases that have gone undetected, experts such as Dr Nkengasong say there is no indication of a large number of unexplained deaths in most countries.

But there are warnings there could be second wave of infections as more and more countries relax restrictions.

media captionThe coronavirus diagnostics kit made in South Africa

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Israel is winning on the world stage, but losing the plot at home

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“Let us pause for a moment to appreciate this remarkable day. Let us rise above any political divide. Let us put all cynicism aside. Let us feel on this day the pulse of history,” he said last Tuesday. “For long after the pandemic is gone, the peace we make today will endure.”

The normalization deals were the latest feathers in the cap of a leader who’s been on a diplomatic winning streak lately. From the outside, Israel projects the image of a small but mighty country punching far above its weight on the global stage, an innovative “start-up nation” whose thousands of tech firms attract billions in foreign investment each year.

At home it’s a different story, however. The second wave of coronavirus infections in Israel long ago eclipsed the first, forcing the country into a second general lockdown that has shuttered schools, restaurants, entertainment venues and more. And while the coronavirus may be the most pressing challenge facing Netanyahu right now, it’s far from the only one. The 70-year-old leader is being attacked from both left and the right, not only for his handling of the public health crisis, but also for mismanagement of the economy, his response to his criminal trials, and more.

“We have a dysfunctional government, good at producing ceremonies in the White House, bad at running a country,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid. “This is the worst failure Netanyahu ever experienced and we are experiencing it with him … or because of him.”

At home, weekly protests have swelled outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, where thousands of people have come out and called on Israel’s longest-serving leader to resign. The angry crowd, undeterred by a steady barrage of attacks from Netanyahu’s political allies, hold signs that read “Crime Minister” and “Bibi Go Home.” This past weekend, in the first protest since Israel reimposed a general lockdown, eleven protesters were arrested, police said.

Unemployment remains near 19%, according to the Israel Unemployment Service, and an already fragile economy will suffer another blow during the current lockdown. (The Central Bureau of Statistics, which uses a different set of criteria for determining unemployment, says the current rate is between 10.4% and 11.8%.)

Restaurant owners, frustrated as they face a closure that threatens their livelihoods, smashed plates on the floor in protest. Some are more defiant, saying they plan to keep their businesses open.

“No one is caring for us, we have to​ care for ourselves,” restaurateur Yoni Salomon told Israel’s Kann News. “We won’t let anyone take our most basic rights — there is no sense in this closure and I’ll deal with the fine.”

It’s not just restaurateurs defying government lockdown orders. Israeli police handed out almost seven thousand fines​ for violating the restrictions over the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, according to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Exemplary leadership from the top has also been noticeably lacking. Despite Netanyahu stressing the importance of wearing masks and social distancing, some of his ministers have been photographed without face coverings during cabinet meetings, and two of Netanyahu’s aides have ​been accused of violating quarantine regulations ​within the last week.

The lockdown restrictions themselves are a study in bureaucratic legalese, often adjusted and tweaked at the last second so as not to anger Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, or any other group with its own interests and goals that the Prime Minister decides he cannot afford to offend.

The current Israeli government is the largest in the country’s 72-year history, a so-called unity government bringing together — at least in theory — the two main political parties: Netanyahu’s Likud party and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. The bloated political Frankenstein, with 34 ministers and 8 deputy ministers, was fabricated with bits and pieces broken off from existing ministries to create additional jobs for politicians to fill, such as the position of alternate Prime Minister and the Ministry of Higher Education and Water Resources.

And yet despite the government’s size, it remains almost exclusively a one-man show. Netanyahu didn’t even notify his Foreign Minister or Defense Minister​– who happens to be Benny Gantz — about the agreement with the United Arab Emirates until it was announced publicly, claiming he was concerned they would leak the news.

This government, specifically designed to handle the coronavirus crisis, was officially sworn in on May 17. ​On that day, Israel recorded just 11 new cases of Covid-19, according to Ministry of Health data. There were 44 patients on ventilators and 3,403 active cases across the country, out of a total of 16,617 cases.

READ: Full text of the Abraham Accords and agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates/Bahrain

At the time, critics quipped that the government could put a government minister next to each patient on a ventilator.

Four months later, Israel’s unity government has abjectly failed in its self-declared primary mission. As of Wednesday morning, there were 54,322 active cases in Israel out of a total of 200,041 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Ministry of Health recorded 6,861 new cases Tuesday, with 171 patients on ventilators. Across the country’s beleaguered hospital system, 634 patients were in serious condition.

“Israelis are extremely pessimistic as a result of the corona crisis, and the perceived mismanagement of the economic and health aspects of the crisis,” said Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI). A former politician, Plesner said he’s never seen anything like the problems within this current government.

A recent survey from the IDI showed that Israelis overwhelmingly support the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, but that hasn’t translated into a sense of trust in government or confidence about the future of the country. Approximately two-thirds of Israelis believe the national mood is either moderately pessimistic or very pessimistic, according to the survey results, conducted by the Midgam Institute and prepared by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research. ​

“Supposedly, this should have been a national unity government that is steering us out of the crisis, creating the necessary reforms to prepare us for the post-corona era; instead it’s a government that is in total paralysis,” Plesner said.

And yet Netanyahu displayed his brash brand of confidence last Thursday, when he tried to assure Israeli citizens that they’re in good hands. “The main thing I am telling you is that health and the economy are in our hands. This is the time for responsibility — personal responsibility and mutual guarantee. We will defeat the coronavirus but only together will we do so,” Netanyahu said.

Israel is going into a second nationwide lockdown over Covid-19

Netanyahu boasted about making peace with two Arab nations in 29 days, from August 13th to September 11th. During that same time period, approximately 62,000 thousand Israelis were diagnosed with Covid-19, while 446 citizens died of the disease. But when Netanyahu was asked last week who should shoulder the blame for the failure to contain the virus, he responded, “There are no failures, only achievements.”

The comment marked a strikingly different tone from that of President Reuven Rivlin just a few days later, when Israel’s head of state offered a forthright apology to the nation for the failure of the country’s leadership to lead.

“I know that we have not done enough as a leadership to be worthy of your attention. You trusted us and we let you down,” said Rivlin. “You, the citizens of Israel, deserve a safety net that the country gives you. Decision-makers, government ministries, policy implementers must work for you and only for you — to save lives, to reduce infection, to rescue the economy. I understand the feeling that none of these were done satisfactorily.”

If Israel’s public health policy is under fire, its economic policy-making is even more sclerotic. The last national budget was passed in 2018, and Netanyahu and Gantz were unable to reach agreement on a new one last month, so they decided instead to simply postpone for a few months in the interests of keeping their government afloat. The head of the budget division in the Ministry of Finance quit his job, joining his counterpart at the Ministry of Health’s public health division, who walked out a few months earlier. Both wrote fiery resignation letters critical of the country’s leadership or lack thereof.

And yet from the lofty position of Israel’s Prime Minister, ​none of the above counts as the number one problem. Netanyahu’s biggest issue is the fact he has been charged with bribery and fraud and breach of trust. He continues to maintain his innocence, attacking the attorney general, investigators, and the judicial system, accusing them of an attempted coup driven by the left-wing and the media.

His trial begins in earnest in January, when a panel of judges will begin hearing from witnesses. It is hard to imagine a White House ceremony big enough to draw attention away from those criminal proceedings.​​​

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Pelosi wrestles with House factions ahead of Supreme Court confirmation fight

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Both factions see their priorities as key to delivering Democrats sweeping power in the House, Senate and White House next year. Whether Pelosi can keep her sprawling caucus from splintering in the month before the election will be critical.

“Leadership has to try to tend to the many different voices in a big very tent. And I understand that,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a senior member of the House Oversight Committee.

“But I think this goes beyond an issue of politics,” Connolly added. “It’s about the future of the country. And that’s why I favor robust action that would have been considered really out there — bold — a few years ago.”

Since the death of the liberal icon on Friday, Pelosi has carefully sought to temper progressive expectations about the Supreme Court fight without dampening their enthusiasm — and risk depressing voter turnout on the left over the issue.

Liberal Democrats, both in Congress and leading grassroots groups across the country, have been incensed as they watched Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lock down support for a vote before the election or during a lame duck that could give the court a conservative majority for decades.

Cash is flooding in, and protests have lined the streets of Washington. Activists and even some elected Democrats have begun to talk seriously about packing the courts or an end to the Senate filibuster — historic institutional changes that establishment Democrats have long rejected.

Some chatter even emerged on the left of pursuing the impeachment of a Trump appointee like Attorney General William Barr in a last-ditch attempt to slow the process, though progressives in Washington have been far more restrained in their messaging. Senior Democrats have also repeatedly privately dismissed the idea, saying it wouldn’t work anyway.

“We’ve got to talk about what’s at stake now, what’s at stake in the lives of millions and millions of people,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when asked about liberal calls for court-packing or ending the filibuster. “Health care is on the ticket once again. … This fight touches the lives of every single person in this country.”

The most progressive voices in the party, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have clearly articulated their support for Senate Democrats to ultimately strike back, such as eliminating the legislative filibuster and adding justices to the court.

“Frankly, I think if Vice President Biden wants to accomplish anything significant in his term, that is what is going to be necessary,” the liberal Democrat told POLITICO. “If I’m Joe Biden and I completely shut down the possibility of expanding the court, I would seriously question what you can even accomplish as president.”

But Ocasio-Cortez has also made a concerted effort to stay on message with the Democratic party leadership in the crucial final run-up to the November election.

Over the weekend, Ocasio-Cortez appeared alongside Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a New York City press conference, where both insisted that Democrats would keep their options open. And Ocasio-Cortez also said even though Biden hasn’t embraced far-left ideas like court-packing, he is at least “open” to different ideas and she thinks he is “calculating correctly.”

The demands of the far left could hardly look more different than the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, which is more worried about holding onto their seats in November. They say the party’s only response should be talking more about the threats to Americans’ health care — repeating the playbook that helped propel the party back to power in the House in 2018.

And most centrist Democrats have little interest in heeding demands of outside liberal groups and even some members, which they fear will cause lasting damage to the institution and may only backfire the next time the Republican party seizes power.

“We have to focus on right now and protecting health care today,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who leads the caucus’ messaging arm. “If we’re privileged enough to win the House, the Senate and the White House, we’ll have lots of opportunities to talk about solutions. But right now, we need to call out the president for what he is attempting to do.”

Moderate Democrats were privately furious that some of their more liberal counterparts, like Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), would float the idea of expanding the court in retaliation for Republicans ramming through a new Supreme Court justice this year.

And even publicly, some congressional Democrats argue that the vocal calls for scorched-earth tactics right now could have unintended consequences for the party.

“Why provide anybody any ammunition at all to attack us for something that is speculative?” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “The Republicans would love nothing more than to shift this into an academic discussion about the number of times that the Supreme Court’s size has changed.”

Pelosi refused to rule out extreme dilatory tactics like impeachment during an interview on ABC on Sunday, saying the House will use “every arrow in our quiver” to stop Republicans from confirming President Donald Trump’s third high court nominee. But Democrats privately shut down the idea of pursuing impeachment. And Pelosi has repeatedly tried to shift the focus to what the Supreme Court fight means for preserving or destroying Obamacare.

Pelosi and Schumer circulated talking points encouraging Democrats to frame the Supreme Court fight in those terms. And Pelosi has repeatedly emphasized the success of Democrats’ almost singular health care message in 2018.

Pelosi speculated that Republicans and Trump were rushing to fill the high court vacancy to strike down the Affordable Care Act, a move she predicted would backfire on the GOP like the party’s effort to dismantle the law in 2018. The Supreme Court is slated to hear arguments in the Trump administration’s challenge to Obamacare the week after the election.

“You overturn the Affordable Care Act, you overturn preexisting conditions, 2018 will be a way of life for Republicans,” Pelosi told Democrats on a private call Tuesday, according to sources on the call.

Many moderate Democrats have already made health care a top issue in their reelection campaigns this fall.

But they’ve also begun to feel the intense pressure on another issue: economic relief for tens of millions of Americans who’ve been left struggling as the U.S. economy sputtered over the last six months due to the pandemic.

“People in my district are worried about their pocketbooks and their kids,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a frontliner, said in an interview Tuesday. “And while they feel very strongly about the importance of a lifetime appointment … they want to know when the next Covid emergency relief bill is gonna be here, they want to know how they can get masks and supplies to keep their businesses open, they want to know what’s happening with unemployment.”

Democrats in the most competitive races have begun vocally pressing Pelosi and her leadership team for more dramatic steps on a coronavirus relief package. More than 20 Democrats, including Slotkin, signed a bipartisan letter to Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday urging them to keep lawmakers in Washington until a relief bill can be passed — even if it means less time to campaign before November.

“This should be our number one priority in the coming days,” lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the New York Times and obtained by POLITICO.

At least a dozen Democrats are also privately discussing joining a GOP discharge petition that would force a vote on additional aid for small business grants, known as the Paycheck Protection Program. That includes Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) and Jared Golden (D-Maine) — all facing tough reelection battles this fall.

In one sign of hope, Pelosi told her members in a private call on Tuesday that she’s still pushing to secure a pandemic aid package with GOP leaders — regardless of the intense discussions over the court across the Capitol — with hopes of delivering relief before the election.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told members on Tuesday they should be expected to remain in town next week and he is keeping the schedule open for a potential vote.

“Getting into these beltway arguments, in this bubble, when people are hurting, small businesses are going out of business every day for good. … What are we quibbling about here?” said Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), referring to the debate over court-packing and nuking the filibuster.

“There’s still an alarming rate of Covid positive tests in this country. I just think it’s a little premature to talk about what Democrats are gonna do in the Senate in January.”



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