Local authorities ‘need resources to support Covid-19 test and trace efforts’

A joint national and local approach to coronavirus testing and contact tracing needs “a change in flow of resources” to help councils cover the costs of trying to reach people, a public health official has suggested.

Lucy Hubber, deputy director of public health for Luton, made her comments following the Government announcing plans to strengthen regional test and trace powers in England, while cutting 6,000 national contract tracers this month.

On Monday, the Department for Health and Social Care said NHS Test and Trace will provide local authorities across the country with “ring-fenced teams” of contact tracers from the national service to ensure more people are reached.

Luton, alongside Blackburn with Darwen and Leicester, is one of the local areas to already benefit from the approach of closer links between the national programme and local officials.

Ms Hubber said in less than a week of running the initiative, work in Luton had pushed up NHS Test and Trace’s success rate of contacting positive coronavirus cases from 70% to 86%.

She argued it was the “right thing to do” for the town’s local authority to pick up more difficult to reach cases after 48 hours of unsuccessful efforts by NHS Test and Trace, but highlighted that “we are doing this at our own cost”.

Commenting on the Government’s announcement, Ms Hubber said: “They are actually shifting some of that activity into local authorities [and] if they are shifting activity into local authorities resources should follow that.

“Because we will have to set up, and we have set up in Luton, desk based and on the ground contact tracers to do this work.

“We are happy to do this, we think it’s better for our population, but if NHS Test and Trace are doing this we would expect a change in flow of resources to support this in local authorities.”

Ms Hubber said local colleagues were handling relatively low numbers of cases, contacting between zero and three a day for the first five days of local tracing.

A team has been trained to knock on doors to reach people, but this measure has yet to be needed.

“Every time we have a little bit more control over any aspect we better understand how it would work for our population,” Ms Hubber said.

“So some of the conversations that our contact tracers are having with these cases helps us to understand what more we can do to help and support our population.

“Where they might have had issues or challenges in getting tested or being able to self isolate or seeking support, it means that we can immediately offer that support and help address those problems, which we would not hear about through the NHS Test and Trace process.”

Ms Hubber said it would be “ideal” if local officials in Luton were able to follow up all of the positive Covid-19 cases and their households in the town, while NHS Test and Trace handled reaching their wider contacts.

“It’s much better for our citizens, we believe, for us to be having that contact with them and we would actually like to do that more,” she said, adding: “We think that offers a better offer for our population than the national test and trace.”

Ms Hubber emphasised it was important to contact people with confirmed Covid-19 as quickly as possible, highlighting that up to five days can pass before people taking a positive home test come to the attention of NHS Test and Trace.

Ivan Browne (pictured), director of public health for Leicester, said timing was “critical” in tackling the spread of coronavirus.

He said joint national and local testing and tracing efforts in the city was “a really positive approach”, representing “a win for everybody”.

“What we have found is, certainly for the cases that were referred through to us after 48 hours, we had a success rate of something in the region of 85%,” Mr Browne said.

“We could find 85% of those people that the national test and trace programme had struggled with.”

He said the council was able to draw on council tax, welfare support and other information to reach people.

“There’s a real opportunity for us to use local knowledge linked to a national system that kind of picked off the easier ones,” Mr Browne said.

He added: “We have had a couple of cases where we’ve just been able to just knock on somebody’s door and people are appreciative of the fact.”

Mr Browne said having a dedicated local focus within NHS Test and Trace had “definitely helped”, adding that it is important such an approach is implemented “as soon as possible” for local areas.

“I think that there’s got to be an understanding that different parts of the system work better in different areas and if we can make it local, we’ve got expertise locally, then you want to be able to make sure you’re capitalising on that,” he said.

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