William Eichler 12 October 2021

Council chiefs criticise Government’s ‘central first, local later’ COVID response

Council chiefs criticise Government’s ‘central first, local later’ COVID response image

Local authority leaders have said that councils could have been given ‘a greater role’ in the initial response to COVID-19 after MPs criticised the Government for pursuing a strategy of ‘central first, local later’.

A long-awaited report into the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee has praised the COVID vaccine programme as ‘one of most effective initiatives in UK history’.

However, the report – entitled Coronavirus: lessons learned to date – also criticised the Government for the delay in ordering a national lockdown. Cases of the coronavirus were identified in the UK at the end of January but the national lockdown only came into force on 23 March.

The committee also concluded that the delays in establishing an adequate test, trace and isolate system hampered efforts to contain the outbreak. In particular, they criticised the Government for focusing on the establishment of a centralised test and trace system – NHS Test and Trace – and not drawing more on the knowledge and experience of local public health services.

Coronavirus: lessons learned to date noted that the UK’s public health system has well-established systems for contact tracing people with communicable diseases at the local level. In fact, the report describes contact tracing as ‘a core capability of local directors of public health’.

However, despite NHS Test and Trace’s claim that its model was ‘local by default’, the committees concluded that it was not until July 2020 that local authorities started to take on a larger role in tracing activities.

One of the experts who gave evidence to the committees, Professor Sir Chris Ham, criticised the Government’s approach as ‘biased too much towards the national and [was] too late in providing resources and staff at local level.’

A former chief executive of the health think tank The King’s Fund, Professor Ham continued: ‘On contact tracing specifically, the Government chose to go down the route of bringing in private sector expertise through Serco and Sitel to run the national system. Only belatedly have they recognised the expertise that exists within our councils and our public health teams.’

As the committees’ report concluded: ‘NHS Test and Trace’s July 2020 business plan stated that its model was “local by default”. However, the evidence we have set out in the preceding paragraphs suggests that this approach was not taken forward in practice from the outset, and that the Government pursued a strategy of central first, local later.’

Responding to the report, Cllr David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Community Wellbeing Board, said that councils could have been given ‘a greater role’ in the initial response to COVID-19.

‘Directors of Public Health and their teams, working in councils, know their areas best and were eventually able to complement the national test and trace system by setting up their own local contact tracing partnerships and successfully tracing many hard-to-reach cases,’ he said.

Cllr Fothergill also noted that the pandemic had highlighted the great strain that the social care system was under, and the need for more resources and greater data sharing with councils to help them deal with localised outbreaks.

‘The Spending Review is an opportunity to address the health inequalities exposed by the pandemic which are preventing us from levelling up the country, by investing in councils’ public health services and injecting genuinely new funding into adult social care to tackle immediate pressures, if we are to build back better from the pandemic,’ he concluded.

Responding to the report, a Government spokesperson said: ‘Throughout the pandemic we have been guided by scientific and medical experts and we never shied away from taking quick and decisive action to save lives and protect our NHS, including introducing restrictions and lockdowns.

‘Thanks to a collective national effort, we avoided NHS services becoming overwhelmed and our phenomenal vaccination programme has built a wall of defence, with over 24.3 million infections prevented and more than 130,000 lives saved so far.”

‘As the Prime Minister has said, we are committed to learning lessons from the pandemic and have committed to holding a full public inquiry in Spring.’

Photo: Ben Thornley / Shutterstock.com

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