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Health secretary Matt Hancock said only half of those positive cases missed off the totals have now been contacted (Parliamentlive.TV)


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Matt Hancock has revealed almost 8,000 people with coronavirus have still not had their contacts traced after a massive computer glitch missed off a swathe of positive tests.

The health secretary was accused of presiding over a “shambles” that was “putting lives at risk” after telling MPs the problem was to do with a “legacy Public Health England system”.

He was delivering a statement in the Commons after it was revealed 15,841 Covid-19 cases were missed off the published totals.

But this also meant their cases had not been passed on to NHS Test and Trace, allowing those who had come into contact with the infected to remain unaware, and potentially continuing to spread the disease.

Mr Hancock said as of this morning only half of those missing cases had been contacted a second time, meaning the contacts of around 7,760 people were yet to be reached.

“Contact tracing of these cases began first thing Saturday,” he said.

“We brought in 6,500 hours of extra contact tracing over the weekend and I can report to the House as of 9am today 51% of the cases have now been contacted a second time for contract tracing purposes.

“I want to reassure the House that outbreak control in care homes, schools and hospitals has not been directly affected because dealing with outbreaks in these settings does not primarily rely on this PHE system.”

The Cabinet minister added: “This incident should never have happened but the team has acted swiftly to minimise its impact, and now it is critical that we work together to put this right and make sure it never happens again.”

And he said despite the large additional number of cases now added to the overall total, he said the government’s assessment of the pandemic has “not substantially changed”.

Mr Hancock explained: “This morning the Joint Biosecurity Centre presented to me their updated analysis of the epidemic based on the new figures.

“The chief medical officer (Chris Whitty) has analysed that our assessment of the disease and its impact has not substantially changed as a result of these data.

“The JBC has confirmed that this has not impacted the basis on which decisions about local action were taken last week. Nevertheless, this is a serious issue that is being investigated fully.”

He said the problem was in the reporting and not the testing itself, saying “every single person that tested positive was told that result in the normal way in the normal timeframe” and notified of the need to self-isolate.

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said despite Boris Johnson’s claim the UK would have “a world-beating system”, months in it “is neither competent nor improving.”

He said the government “is failing on the basics” and called on Mr Hancock to apologise.

“In recent weeks we’ve had people told to travel hundreds of miles for a test, we’ve had hundreds of children out of school unable to get a test” Mr Ashworth added.

“We’ve had tracers sitting idle watching Netflix. We’ve had care home tests taking days to be processed.

“Yesterday we had a health minister saying this could be a moment of national pride like the Olympics. 

“We’ve had a Prime Minister in a complete muddle over the rules and now, at one of the most crucial points in this pandemic, we learn that almost 16,000 positive cases when unreported for a week.

“That means as many as 48,000 contacts not traced and not isolating. Thousands of people blissfully unaware they’ve been exposed to Covid potentially spreading this deadly virus at a time when hospital admissions are increasing and we’re in the second wave.

“This isn’t just a shambles, it’s so much worse than this and it gives me no comfort to say it, but it’s putting lives at risk and he should apologise when he responds.”

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Tension Has Escalated Between Tory MPs And Marcus Rashford Ahead Of A Vote On Free School Meals

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Tories must face up to their “conscience” today on a vote on extending free school meals over the holidays, Labour has claimed, as footballer and anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford ramped up the pressure on politicians to back it.

The challenge from shadow children’s minister Tulip Siddiq came after another difficult morning for the government as Manchester United star Rashford said he was “paying close attention” to the vote and then got into a Twitter spat with Tory MP Steve Baker over who has the power to introduce the free meals.

Moments later Tory backbencher Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot in Devon, broke ranks to say she would be supporting Labour’s motion on extending the free school meals until next Easter. Education select committee chair Conservavtive Robert Halfon has urged the government to work with Rashford.

When asked at Prime Minister’s Questions to back the proposal by Labour, Boris Johnson said the government wanted to use the benefits system to support children in the hoildays.

“I want to make sure we continue to support families thoughout the crisis so they have the cash available to feed their kids as they need to do,” he said. 

Earlier this week government minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that struggling families can claim Universal Credit and that many parents do not like being labelled as being on ‘free school meals’ instead preferring to pay a modest sum of money to a holiday club to provide food.

Siddiq told PoliticsHome: “A lot of the Tories, Don Valley, Bishop Aukland and places like that they’re all a little bit worried. It’s the kind of thing that can be used against them in their patches.

“Even if they don’t walk through the lobbies with us tonight that they put a lot of pressure on the prime minister. And that’s how it happened last time.

“I know it’s not easy to break the whip but some votes are a matter of conscience and this is one of them.

“We’re going to be facing the toughest winter of a generation, there’s coronavirus, the end of the furlough scheme – children are in for a tough ride. Why can’t we just do one last thing for parents so they don’t have to worry?”

She said some Tories she had spoken to directly in Parliament on Tuesday were sympathetic to the issue but they did not want to break the whip.

The vouchers were introduced for the poorest families in August after significant pressure from Rashford. The England striker said today that the situation for children is now worse than in the summer.

The vote at 7pm is on a Labour motion calling on the government to continue directly funding free school meals over the holidays until Easter 2021. They say it would prevent a million children going hungry.

Rashford tweeted that he was paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to “turn a blind eye” to the needs of our most vulnerable children.

He wrote: “2.2M of them who currently qualify for Free School Meals. 42% newly registered. Not to mention the 1.5M children who currently don’t qualify.”

He then got into an disagreement with MP Steve Baker who said Rashford was the one with all the power to make the change on free school meals because he has more Twitter followers that he does, despite Baker being a politician for the ruling Conservative party.

Baker said instead Universal Credit could be boosted to try and help families..

Morris, who was elected in 2010 said that she would vote against her own party tonight because of the economic fall out for people in her constituency.

She tweeted: “The ongoing pandemic has had a heavy impact on many across Teignbridge, bringing with it significant economic difficulties for many. This is why I am supporting the motion calling for the continuation of direct funding for FSM over school holidays until Easter 2021.

“This time-limited measure is a perfectly sensible response as we deal with the economic consequences of Covid-19. Longer-term I believe it is right that those eligible should be supported through the Holidays & Activities Food Programme and the Universal Credit system.”

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Trump comment on ‘blowing up’ Nile Dam angers Ethiopia

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image copyrightReuters

image captionThe dam will be the biggest hydro-electric project in Africa

Ethiopia’s prime minister has said his country “will not cave in to aggressions of any kind” after President Donald Trump suggested Egypt could destroy a controversial Nile dam.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is at the centre of a long-running dispute involving Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

Mr Trump said Egypt would not be able to live with the dam and might “blow up” the construction.

Ethiopia sees the US as siding with Egypt in the dispute.

The US announced in September that it would cut some aid to Ethiopia after it began filling the reservoir behind the dam in July.

Why is the dam disputed?

Egypt relies for the bulk of its water needs on the Nile and is concerned supplies could be cut off and its economy undermined as Ethiopia takes control of the flow of Africa’s longest river.

Once complete, the $4bn (£3bn) structure on the Blue Nile in western Ethiopia will be Africa’s largest hydro-electric project.

The speed with which Ethiopia fills up the dam will govern how severely Egypt is affected – the slower the better as far as Cairo is concerned. That process is expected to take several years.

  • Who owns the River Nile – and why it matters

  • Egypt fumes as Ethiopia celebrates over Nile dam
  • How the Nile’s mega dam will be filled

Sudan, further upstream than Egypt, is also concerned about water shortages.

Ethiopia, which announced the start of construction in 2011, says it needs the dam for its economic development.

Negotiations between the three countries were being chaired by the US, but are now overseen by the African Union.

What did the Ethiopian PM say?

PM Abiy Ahmed did not address Mr Trump’s remarks directly, but there appears to be little doubt what prompted his robust comments.

Ethiopians would finish the dam, he vowed.

“Ethiopia will not cave in to aggression of any kind,” he said. “Ethiopians have never kneeled to obey their enemies, but to respect their friends. We won’t do it today and in the future.”

Threats of any kind over the issue were “misguided, unproductive and clear violations of international law”.

image copyrightReuters
image captionSudan is worried too – the Blue and White Niles meet in Khartoum

Why did Trump get involved?

The president was on the phone to Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu in front of reporters at the White House on Friday.

The occasion was Israel and Sudan’s decision to agree diplomatic relations in a move choreographed by the US.

The subject of the dam came up and Mr Trump and Mr Hamdok expressed hopes for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

But Mr Trump also said “it’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way”.

He continued: “And I said it and I say it loud and clear – they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.”

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe dam came up in a phone call with Sudan’s prime minister

What is the state of the negotiations?

Mr Abiy maintains that the negotiations have made more progress since the African Union began mediation.

But there are fears that Ethiopia’s decision to start filling the reservoir could overshadow hopes of resolving key areas, such what happens during a drought and how to resolve future disputes.

Related Topics

  • Nile

  • Sudan
  • Donald Trump
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia

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Boris Johnson used to be the Teflon man of British politics, brushing off scandals, gaffes and mistakes. Not any more

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Now Johnson’s plans appear ruined. He’d wanted to use his personal enthusiasm for Brexit to instil a fresh sense of optimism that the UK’s future was brighter outside the European Union. Free from the Brussels bureaucracy, Johnson’s government vowed to address the UK’s socio-economic imbalance that in some sense led to Brexit by “leveling up” deprived areas. He would also seek to strengthen the bond between the four nations of the UK, which had been stretched to near-breaking point amid the bitterness following the 2016 referendum. In short, the man who led the campaign that caused so much division was on a charm offensive to heal the country.

However, 10 months on, his government is short on resources and losing good will. Johnson’s opponents point to numerous errors made early in the pandemic over testing and confusing messaging over lockdowns, the highest death count in Europe and worst recession of any major economy as evidence of his failures. Worse, members of his own party fear that his lack of attention to detail and instinct for combative politics is causing a shift in the PM’s public perception: From affable optimist to incompetent bully who is hopelessly out of his depth. And they worry what long-term damage this might do both to Johnson’s personal mission and the brand of the Conservative party writ large.

One former Conservative cabinet minister and colleague of Johnson, who declined to be named, agreed with this analysis. “To deal with a crisis like this, you need public confidence and you need different bits of the state working together as effectively as possible,” the politician said. “Instead, they have managed to enrage the leadership in Scotland and Wales while picking largely pointless fights with mayors of major cities where Conservatives historically don’t do well. It’s a very strange way of going about uniting the country.”

Over the past week, Johnson has been in a protracted and public spat with the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. Johnson wanted the city to enter the UK’s highest tier of Covid restrictions. Burnham didn’t want this to happen without more financial support from the central government. The whole thing ended in a complete mess, as Johnson’s government didn’t make clear after talks collapsed that the money deemed insufficient by Burnham was still on the table. This led to a televised press conference in which Burnham supposedly found out live on air that the government had withdrawn their offer of £60 million ($78 million) for the city, instead only offering £22 million.

The government claims the whole thing was a set up by Burnham and in fact the minister responsible had talked with him before the press conference.

A government minister told CNN that there is “zero evidence that the PM picked a fight with Burnham,” adding that a central government “naturally has to balance economic and public health issues while local politicians have a much narrower focus,” implying Burnham was playing politics with Johnson.

However, worryingly for Johnson, his personal approval ratings and trust in his government have plummeted sufficiently since the crisis that the truth doesn’t entirely matter.

“When you look at Boris’s personal brand you see dramatic drop-offs in people who think he is likeable and trustworthy since the start of the pandemic. He now lags behind Keir Starmer (leader of the opposition Labour party) on almost all of those metrics,” says Chris Curtis, Political Research Manager at pollster YouGov.

This dip in trust is particularly toxic for Johnson when you combine it with the reputation Conservatives have in parts of the country that historically vote Labour and Johnson was able to pick up seats in last December’s election — the so-called Red Wall.

This reputation was not helped when Johnson found himself in round two of a fight with popular Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford over providing meals for the poorest children during the Christmas holidays this year. On Wednesday night, Johnson directed his party to vote against the proposal.

“People will remember in six or 12 months that the government didn’t seem to care if children went hungry over Christmas during an economic crisis. It costs relatively little to fund compared to other government spending this year,” says Lauren McEvatt, former special adviser to a previous Conservative administration. “It feeds into a narrative which still exists that Conservatives ultimately don’t care as much about poor people.”

What’s perplexed many observers over the Rashford affair is that Johnson had to U-turn earlier this year on exactly the same matter for summer holidays. “This government is like that GIF where Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on the same rakes and whacking himself in the face,” says Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

All of which only goes to reopen the question of government competence. “From the start, this government set out to hyper-centralize everything from a small team in Downing Street in order to have a tight grip on the Johnson project,” says a senior Conservative lawmaker. “That means a small group of people are making decisions in areas they might not be experts. That’s hard enough at the best of times, but during a crisis which affects the whole country and is constantly changing, it’s virtually impossible.”

The lawmaker goes on to explain that he thinks they “rely too much on focus groups” in order to appeal to public opinion. “The trouble is, focus groups don’t have much foresight. Something might be very popular one day but six months down the line look like a massive mistake. Normal practice in government is to find the right policy and sell it to the public, not the other way around.”

Numerous current and former Downing Street insiders told CNN that while it was true this government did run a lot of focus groups and deemed them to be very important, opinion was divided on their precise influence over policy making. Some said that decisions were made on the basis of focus groups; some said they helped shape how the government would sell policy to the public; some claimed it had led to major policy U-turns, including over Rashford’s summer campaign. A government official denied this claim.

Whatever the truth, it is hard to deny that Johnson’s credibility has taken a significant hit this year. Many point to a scandal surrounding his most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, as the worst moment of the year. Cummings, having displayed symptoms for Covid, decided to drive hundreds of miles from his home in London when government advice clearly stated that he should self-isolate. Cummings claimed that he did so to provide childcare for his young son.

“They could have killed that story in 48 hours if they said he was desperately worried about his baby and now realizes it was wrong,” says the former cabinet minister. Instead, Cummings gave a bizarre press conference where he defended not only his initial trip, but a further outing in his car which he claimed to merely be testing his eyesight. “The refusal to show any kind of contrition led to a big change of mood. That episode symbolizes what has been wrong about the approach,” the former minister adds.

Whether that’s fair or not, it’s certainly possible to argue the case that the Cummings scandal had three key ingredients: Cock-up; lack of apology; aggressive response. It is also possible to superimpose this playbook onto both the responses to Burnham and Rashford. In the case of the latter, Johnson was not helped by members of his own party implying that some poor parents are feckless and not interested in feeding their children and that children have always gone hungry anyway.
Marcus Rashford clashes with lawmakers as UK parliament votes against free school meals proposal

All of this leaves Johnson vulnerable to those who want to paint him as a mean-spirited bully running a shambolic government. “Fairly or unfairly, it does play to the stereotype of Conservatives as not interested in the poor and not interested in the north. This, unfortunately, does really damage his agenda for leveling up, cementing the red wall and defending the union,” says the former minister.

It’s worth pointing out that as things stand, Johnson’s party is still ahead in the polls. A government minister puts this down to the fact that despite all the headlines, Johnson’s real actions present an alternative narrative that voters understand. “If you move away from Covid, all the big announcements we have made are focused on investments in skills, and we didn’t go for austerity 2.0 despite massive pressure. All of these things suggest that leveling up is still the PM’s top priority,” the minister said.

However, despite those polls, Johnson only won his majority last December and that lead has been slipping. And as the crisis continues, many of his previous supporters are increasingly skeptical that Boris Johnson was ever really the man to unite a country divided by political chaos for which he was largely responsible.

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