A government minister has admitted local councils are “bound to be better” at contact tracing than Westminster.
Robert Jenrick has admitted that after outsourcing the test and trace system to the private sector, and running it centrally, it would have been better to let local authorities run their own scheme.
The communities secretary said councils that know their “hard-to-reach communities” were bound to do a better job of contact tracing than the government and pledged to help them carry out their work.
This follows a report in the Sunday Times which suggested the NHS Test and Trace system needed an urgent boost in cases contacted by local teams in order to get it back on track.
The report comes amid concerns the £12 billion national system is failing after almost 16,000 confirmed coronavirus tests went unreported last week.
It also comes as the percentage of people receiving test results within 24 hours dropped from 38% to 24%.
It is suggested minsters will give town hall bosses more support to get volunteer contact tracers out on the streets.
Asked if the government was planning to give local authorities more responsibility of NHS Test and Trace, Jenrick told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show: “We’re going to work very closely with local authorities.
“So in addition to the national infrastructure which is developing and increasing with every passing week, we’re also going to be making use of local councils to do contact tracing in particular, because there is clear evidence that local councils are good at that – as you’d expect.”
Pressed if local councils were better positioned to lead the system, the communities minister said: “Well, the local councils I’ve spoken to really are looking for two things: firstly, to be supported with contact tracing, and there is real evidence that in places like Leicester, for example, mobilising local council worker…”
Probed again, Jenrick said: “Yes, but I don’t think we should be surprised by that.
“People who know their own community, particularly harder-to-reach communities, are bound to be better than Whitehall or national contact tracers. So we’re going to be supporting them to do that.”
The admission has led to questions over why local councils were not brought into the fold earlier.
Labour’s Angela Eagle, whose Wallasey constituency faces more restrictions, said: “Why did it take this government £12 billion and seven wasted months to realise the blindingly obvious?”
Ashley Watts tweeted: “If it’s so obvious to the govt that local authorities are better at this, why did it take 7 months to work it out. I was waiting for Marr to ask this blindingly obvious question.”
Jaideep Gupte, from the Institute of Development Studies, wrote: “If it is such common sense that local councils are “bound to be better” at test & trace, why then has so much been invested into a centralised & outsourced #SercoTestAndTrace model? Why have there been sustained cutbacks on local council budgets and services over the past decade?”
Councillor Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “Councils’ unique expertise and understanding of their communities means they have been able to rapidly reach those who have tested positive and their contacts, to help contain the spread.
“Local contact tracing services exist to support NHS Test and Trace, with latest figures showing they reached 97.1% of close contacts who were asked to self-isolate. If we are to build upon these successful local efforts, this should be backed up with the necessary funding, up-to-date data and extra people on the ground needed to track and trace everybody affected.”