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News roundup: track and trace, key worker immigration and more

June 4, 2020 4:23 PM
By Barnet Liberal Democrats

nhsIn this update:

  • Is track and trace working in Barnet? We raise concerns about the emerging testing system
  • We clapped for the NHS. Now time for a more open approach on key worker immigration
  • Our work to create healthy streets as the lockdown eases
  • And an update on our MPs' weak responses to the Dominic Cummings scandal

Concerns about track and trace in Barnet

Sarah*, a Liberal Democrat member in Finchley, has written of her difficult experiences getting a Covid-19 test. The rules required Sarah to swab herself deep in the nose and throat, and do the same for her children. She found this a challenge - and Lib Dems are concerned that such testing protocols may well lead to people getting misleading results.

Sarah writes:

"Last week I had a Covid-19 test. Tests cannot be booked via the GP, but only through the 111 website. You enter your details and get an authorisation code by text. With this you can book a test through the government website. A list of the nearest test sites is displayed.

"Some of the mobile testing sites don't permit children under 12, and others do. Some permit DIY testing and some are performed by trained staff. And in some sites, there will only be one way to have the test, but you are not told which. You have to attend by private car, not taxi or on foot.

"The test site was in the car park of Edgware Community Hospital. It was a mobile testing site, staffed by the army. Only when we got there did we discover that it was DIY only.

"We had to swab ourselves in the car. You have to scrape a long swab around your tonsils. Your natural gag reflex makes this very difficult to do.

"The same swab then has to be inserted one inch up the nostril, until you "meet resistance". It is hard to do correctly. It's next to impossible to do this on an upset, protesting child!

"I was not surprised when two of our results came back as unclear, meaning the test could not determine a result either way."

As has been widely reported, the Conservative government is behind in its testing capacity, is double-counting tests performed, and has not yet developed an effective test-trace-isolate-support strategy to enable lockdown to be safely eased. The reported 5% rate of void tests represents an additional waste of resource. Moreover, according to the British Medical Journal, there is an up to around 30% false negative rate on Covid-19 tests. So someone who has symptoms, but tests negative, can have very little confidence that she is free from infection.

Sarah adds:

"It would be interesting to learn the proportion of void tests for DIY swabs as opposed to those taken by health professionals, and what proportion of these go on to be retested. Nobody follows up and you are left to rebook the test yourself, nor are test results fed back to your GP."

* name has been changed

Fighting for an open approach to key worker immigration

Prior to the government's about-turn on the immigration health surcharge (a.k.a. the NHS surcharge) last week, your local Liberal Democrats were exploring ways to add our voice to this important campaign. Now, even as the charge is dropped for immigrants working at the frontline of the pandemic, we continue to push for a more sensible approach to immigration that does not shut the door on the very key workers we clap for every Thursday.

This fee (currently £400/year, but set to rise to ~£620 in October) is levied on virtually all UK visa applications, which already cost upward of £1,000. Last week the government partly climbed down, dropping the charge for NHS- and care-workers. But Barnet Liberal Democrats believe the government hasn't gone far enough, and should look again at the surcharge overall, the foolish and callous Immigration Bill linked to it, and other protections for frontline workers.

Charging NHS- and care-workers for access to healthcare, on top of other taxes, has been damaging to Britain's reputation as an open society and a magnet for the best talent. We spoke to the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO), which lobbied against the charge for over three years before, finally, the unignorable reality of covid-19 made the government see some sense. BAPIO's President, Dr. Ramesh Mehta, told us the policy was "like a slap in the face - that our people are dying in the frontline while serving the UK population, and yet the government was charging them for healthcare, in addition to National Insurance Contributions". Dr. Mehta noted the irony of the NHS asking his organisation several years ago to assist with overseas recruitment efforts, to address shortages amounting to 10,000 doctors and 50,000 nurses.

We believe the government's needlessly aggressive policies such as the NHS surcharge are hampering our ability to attract/retain workers in critical sectors. The surcharge is illogical and should be rolled back entirely. And we encourage citizens of Barnet - a multi-ethnic borough, proudly built and served by immigrants - to sign the petition to give European citizens living in Britain the automatic right to live and work in the UK. That would send a positive message, irrespective of other damaging changes in the Immigration Bill.

We also think the government needs to back up its praise for NHS workers with tangible improvements. Doctors and nurses are heroes, but they shouldn't have to be martyrs. It's essential we give them the practical support and recognition they need.

If you have other ideas for how we can show Barnet is open, liberal and refuses to slam the door on immigrants, please contact our Membership Development Officer Sachin Patel.

Healthy streets: pushing for proper cycle lanes

Your Lib Dem councillors have been actively raising the issue of cycling at every opportunity in recent weeks. We have held (virtual) meetings with council staff and have called for real change, swapping out parking spaces for cars in favour of high quality cycling infrastructure. We want to see a transformation of our streets in favour of active travel - it's healthier, it's greener, and in the current age of social distancing it's essential if we are to keep people away from the Underground and buses.

The best way to encourage cycling is - quite simply - to make it safe. That means that local politicians need to have the courage to set aside road space for cycle lanes. Our Conservative-run council has been incredibly slow to even consider cycle lanes, and is badly out of step with the rest of London.

However, thanks in part to Lib Dem pressure, Barnet Council is now looking at putting in cycle lanes - starting with the A1000 (Great North Road), particularly in the south of the borough. This is a great first step. We will continue to engage with Barnet Council to make sure that they maintain momentum on this issue and to make sure we get the healthy streets we deserve.

Dominic Cummings: Barnet's Tory MPs put party loyalty ahead of public health

Last month we wrote to each of Barnet's three Conservative MPs calling on them to publicly call for Dominic Cummings to be fired. It was, and remains, outrageous that one of the most powerful people in the country could have flaunted the lockdown rules so blatantly and got away with it. By not calling him out, the Conservatives showed they are willing to undermine their own public health messaging just to keep Cummings in power.

Only one of the MPs, Mike Freer, has replied to us - he wrote that he had passed on "the full feeling" of his constituents to relevant ministers… but he stopped short of calling for a resignation. At least he wrote us a full reply: some Finchley & Golders Green Lib Dem activists report only receiving an 'acknowledgement' postcard but no actual comment on their concerns.

Meanwhile, Matthew Offord and Theresa Villiers have sent similar letters to their constituents: while each of them tries very hard to distance themselves from Cummings, they nonetheless continue to toe the party line and do not call for him to be fired.

This is a big let down. Barnet's MPs are undermining public trust in the lockdown message through their tacit support of Cummings. In the current climate, where the virus is far from under control, that is positively dangerous.

In the meantime, we encourage everyone in Barnet to stay safe and to keep one another safe: stay home as much as possible, practise social distancing, wear face coverings to limit infection, and follow government advice - even if the government itself cannot seem to do so.