Government defends Test and Trace as councils look to own measures

Authority in Blackburn implements localised initiative to ‘complement’ national scheme

Credit: Katie Collins/EMPICS Entertainment

Councils are “abandoning” the government’s coronavirus test and trace programme because it is “showing no signs of improvement”, Labour have argued.

The opposition seized on the move by Blackburn with Darwen Council to develop its own scheme as it deals with a spike in cases.

Blackburn and Darwen is currently facing the highest rate of Covid-19 infections in England, and was last month designated an “area of intervention” by public health officials.

Under the national test and trace scheme, people with symptoms of coronavirus are tested and enter self-isolation if they are found to have Covid-19.

They must then inform the NHS of everyone they have come into close contact with, with those contacts then approached and told to spend two weeks in quarantine.

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But Blackburn with Darwen’s plan will see council staff use their local knowledge to contact residents if the national scheme has been unable to do so within two days.

Officials will then try to visit people at their homes if they cannot be reached by email, text or phone.

Paul Fleming, director of business change at the council, said: “Test and trace is a vital part of the national strategy to get the virus under control. It is even more vital in areas like ours where we have a rising tide of cases. Our system complements the national system because we have the local knowledge of the area and the ability to send officers round to people’s addresses. Our system is also beneficial because we can refer those who need to isolate to local support services if necessary.”

He added: “Our system has already gone live and we are already seeing its benefits as we have managed to contact people the national system couldn’t. I want to ask all residents to continue to work with us, continue to follow our advice and guidance and continue to take responsibility. Together we will beat the virus.”

The latest weekly statistics for the nationwide test and trace programme shows that 43,119 people who tested positive for Covid-19 have had their case transferred to the system, with 33,472 (77.6%) of those reached and asked to provide their contacts.

Of the 222,589 potential contacts handed over to the scheme, 184,703 (83%) have been reached and asked to self-isolate.

But the findings come after research published in the Lancet journal suggested the national scheme is not currently doing enough to prevent a second wave of Covid-19 when schools reopen in September.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “For months Labour has warned ministers that, without a vaccine, an effective locally delivered test, trace and isolate regime would be critical to safe easing from lockdown. Instead Boris Johnson is handing multi-million pound contacts to firms like Serco and claiming his approach is ‘world beating’ when it is far from that and showing no signs of improvement. He should be honest with the public about his government’s failings.”

The Labour frontbencher added: “Given infection rates are rising and some areas have had restrictions tightened, it is no wonder local authorities are abandoning Johnson’s failed approach and setting up their own systems. Local directors of Public Health, primary care and NHS labs were always better placed to do this vital work effectively and should be given the resources and data to get on with it.”

Local government minister Simon Clarke on Tuesday morning defended the test and trace scheme, saying it was “working”.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of what has been achieved,” he said. “184,000 people have now been contacted by the programme and told to self-isolate. That is 184,000 people who might otherwise have been spreading coronavirus. Our testing rate is now well above that of comparable countries, even people like Germany who have been held up as the gold standard.”


Sam Trendall

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