A council struggling to stave off a coronavirus local lockdown has got so fed up with perceived failures with the government’s contact tracing system that it is setting up its own version.
Sandwell’s director of public health, Lisa McNally, told Sky News that dozens of staff had been seconded to the new team to battle COVID-19 outbreaks in the area.
Sandwell, in the West Midlands, currently has the seventh highest case rate in England – 54.1 per 100,000 people – having seen a sharp jump of 332% in the 14 days up to 26 July.
“I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say we’ve given up on Test and Trace, but we’re not happy with just allowing them to do their job anymore,” Ms McNally said.
“I just don’t see the urgency to fix this; I really don’t see them running around in a panic.”
The council has instead decided to set up its own system to deliver “a lite version of contact tracing” to plug the gaps of people with the virus not being reached.
Language has been a particular barrier amid a struggle to provide staff with translation services to help them communicate with people who don’t speak English.
“As soon as the new case comes in now we’re not waiting for Test and Trace to fail to reach them, we’re phoning them the same day,” Ms McNally said.
“We will have a language speaker available for them, immediately – if we find out they only speak Punjabi, Urdu, Arabic etc – so we can first of all give the important messages that they need to know.
“We can also do a lite version of contact tracing, in that we can ask them if they’ve been to any social events, to prayers on a Friday, to Gurdwara.
“And if, of course, they have been within a 48-hour period before they tested positive or have symptoms, we will then alert that setting to say you’ve had a confirmed case in your setting and here’s the action you need to take.
“So we’re immediately filling that gap in ourselves.”
Ms McNally claimed the government’s system is only reaching 60% of cases, meaning four in 10 are going untraced.
She added that some of the information provided by the government’s tracing system is “meaningless” – for example that a person’s occupation is not listed 80% of the time, or if it is, it can be as broad as “citizen”.
“If we had been getting workplaces exactly three weeks ago, we would probably now not have 79 cases and growing around this area linked to this factory,” she said.
“It even caused a bit of an outbreak at a farm in Worcestershire, because two of the household contacts of the factory workers got on a little minibus, taking workers to a farm in Worcestershire to pick vegetables.
“We’re at the point where we’re missing really important information, we’re still not having enough people contacted by Test and Trace.
“So we’re having to deploy resources that we don’t really have out of other services to try and do it ourselves. And essentially, the taxpayer’s paying twice for this.”
She said she had been “shouting about this now for several weeks” but questioned: “It’s almost like if they decide to accept help is that an admission of failure? I don’t know.
“They seriously need to engage with real life public health experience.”
Labour MP John Spellar, whose Warley constituency contains southern parts of Sandwell, told Sky News he “thoroughly welcomed” the new tracing system being set up.
“The council have been responding rapidly to incidents but I understand their exasperation with the central bodies, both in terms of speed of response and lack of communication.”
The Local Government Association, which represents councils, said local public health teams “need to be able to use their unique expertise, including speaking other languages, and understanding of their communities to try to reach those who cannot be contacted by the Test and Trace system”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “In just seven weeks NHS test and trace has tested over 2.3 million people for coronavirus, identified nearly 39,000 with the virus and reached almost 200,000 of their close contacts, advising them to isolate to help us control the spread of the virus and save lives.
“High quality data is critical to tackle local outbreaks and we’ve been sharing detailed data every day with local authorities to help them take appropriate action where necessary.”
Public Health England and the three other MPs whose constituencies take in parts of Sandwell have all been contacted for comment but none was received at the time of publication.
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