Pascale Robinson 02 July 2020

Local authorities need extra resources to lead contact tracing now

Leicester going back into lockdown shows that the public are still at huge risk. If we’re to get out of lockdown safely, to see friends and family, and hug our loved ones again we need an effective, integrated test, track and trace programme. Everyone agrees on this, everyone except central government it seems.

On testing, the setting up of commercial, privatised labs and drive through centres, known as lighthouse labs, established a parallel network to the NHS, a decision which concerned and confused many at the time.

These commercial labs and testing facilities, also known as ‘pillar 2’ are failing us now, as they do not share regional and local data with the authorities and health services that need it. As said simply by minister of state Nadine Dorries on questioning: ‘the contract with Deloitte does not require the company to report positive cases to Public Health England and local authorities'.

Meanwhile contract tracing is being done to the best ability of the workers, but the whole structure of the fragmented partially outsourced system is a disaster. Currently, cases deemed uncomplicated are handed over to a tier of thousands of call handlers working for Serco and their subcontractors. They are then assigned people to call, who are then often referred back up to health protection teams for further calls. The rest of the cases are being handled by local public health protection teams from the start.

While local authorities, public health protection teams and health services staff know their communities, have years of expertise in contact tracing, and are tapped into local services of support, Serco’s call handlers have complained of a lack of training, and criticised the entire system.

One tracer said: 'If I ring someone and say they’ve been in contact with someone for longer than 15 minutes, they’re supposed to already know as I don’t have any access to who it is, I can’t tell them as we don’t know.'

It is no wonder then that local health protection teams have traced more than eight times more contacts (77,642) than the national call centres and online service (9,997) according to recent figures.

Instead of putting local public health experts in charge of contact tracing, and giving them the resource to do this vital work, as Wales has opted for, Germany, and several other countries have done, health secretary Matt Hancock has handed over responsibility to Serco - a company that has already put lives at risk.

The government’s own SAGE committee says that 80% of the contacts of all symptomatic cases need to be found and isolated in order to stop the virus spreading further. Yet Independent SAGE has said it is 'extremely concerned' that the current system is picking up contacts from only 25% of estimated symptomatic infections of coronavirus.

Furthermore, as far as is understood, there is no data on how many of that small number of people go on to isolate for the full time, and a community contact tracing scheme in Sheffield that did collect this data show that only a third of people asked to went on to isolate. This is even when Sheffield tracers called the same people every day to offer support. According to contact tracers within Serco’s call system that I have spoken to, there is absolutely no follow up, after someone has been asked to isolate.

The public instinctively know this is not a good way to run contact tracing, and it is for all of these reasons that over two thirds of the public believe local public health teams and local health services should be in charge of the contact tracing system, according to a new poll conducted by Survation. 15% of the public believe that a private outsourcing company like Serco should carry out contact tracing in the UK; and when members of the public who had heard of Serco were asked what words best described the company, 44% of people believe them to be “inefficient”, 49% deemed them “wasteful” and 46% said “untrustworthy”.

This comes after an earlier poll found that 40% of the public are less likely to take part in the programme as a result of it being managed by a private outsourcing company.

Luckily, this is a problem that can be fixed relatively quickly.

Local authorities should be funded to take the lead on recruitment and management of the extra staff needed, with public health expertise from public health and NHS teams, to provide an integrated service. This is a test, track and isolate programme the public could have faith in.

Some regions have already started after they decided they couldn’t wait any longer, with authorities setting up walk-in testing centres, and as has been shown above, doing the best they can to effectively contact trace. But local teams need an integrated system, with the resources and staff required to stop this virus ravaging through our communities.

Unfortunately, private companies like Serco have proven incapable of delivering the kind of system we need - and the public understand this. It’s time for the government to listen to local councils and their communities – put local councils, their public health teams and local health services (including GPs and NHS labs) back in charge of testing and contact tracing in the community, and end Serco’s role in contact tracing in England now.

Pascale Robinson is campaigns officer at We Own It

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