By Barnie Choudhury
LEICESTER’S Labour mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, has told Eastern Eye that he feels “vindicated” by the government’s U-turn on its test and trace system.
Since May 28, people who tested positive for coronavirus were being contacted so authorities could trace those with whom they had met.
The government said it had now decided to provide dedicated ring-fenced teams of NHS Test and Trace contact workers to work alongside relevant local public health officials to create a more tailored service.
Sir Peter said, “I feel entirely vindicated because this is precisely what we said to national government months ago. At a local level, we know our communities, and we’ve got the people who work with these communities, day in and day out. Following up on test-and-trace is something that comes naturally to them.”
For several weeks, Eastern Eye has been reporting that community leaders, MPs, and health professionals have been urging the government to use local teams to meet the needs of local people.
Kamlesh Khunti, professor of primary care diabetes and vascular medicine at the University of Leicester, said, “We have been asking for that for a while. So, we definitely welcome this as that’s the only way it will work in multicultural cities like Leicester where the national scheme is difficult to implement due to cultural and language barriers.
“You need local groups who know the population. The local system should have been implemented from the beginning.”
The government said the new process comes after successful trials in “a small number of local areas”. It said the data would be fed into the same system by national and local teams, meaning everyone should be able to see how the service is working and how the virus is spreading.
The executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, Dido Harding, said, “NHS Test and Trace is one of the largest contact tracing and testing systems anywhere in the world. It was built rapidly, drawing on the UK’s existing health protection networks, to stop the spread of coronavirus. At the height of the pandemic we ensured the system had extra capacity in place to cope with potential peaks in the virus.
“We have always been clear that NHS Test and Trace must be local by default and that we do not operate alone – we work with and through partners across the country. As we learn more about the spread of the disease, we are able to move to our planned next step and become even more effective in tackling the virus.”
Sir Peter said the new way of working was better late than never. “It would have been even better if it would have been about three months ago. Once they started testing and tracing, councils up and down the land said, ‘if you give us the data, and give us the power to do it, we can do it far better than Serco’.”
Serco, the private company used by government, has been criticised for its low contact rate.
Last week Eastern Eye revealed that since the NHS Test and Trace “went live” on May 28, almost 2.7 million people have been swabbed. Of these, 43,119 entered the contact tracing system. Government figures show call handers reached almost 33,500, which means they failed to contact almost a quarter of those who had tested positive to provide details of recent encounters.
Operators traced about 185,000 or 83 per cent of those who had been in close contact with someone with the virus and asked them to self-isolate. That means call handlers could not reach almost one in five to say they should quarantine.
“Many in government haven’t got a clue how local government works and how local councils are close to their communities,” said the Leicester mayor. “In contrast to that, many are close to private outsourcing companies. They have only got 80 per cent of the 80 per cent, that’s just over 60 per cent. They’ve missed so many. They could have controlled the virus better if they had trusted what local government is best equipped to do right from the start.”
The government denied that the current system has “failed”, making clear that the system was started eight weeks ago and that it was evolving.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday (11), the health minister, Edward Argar, rejected the claim that government had links to private companies. He said the administration was working closely with local councils, including Leicester and Leicestershire, and confirmed that private contracts were being cut by a third, from 18,000 people to 12,000. They would be used in local teams, but the national programme would continue, he added.