Council fed up with failings of government’s coronavirus track-and-trace programme launches its own

Health secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street on NHS test and trace. Photo

Health secretary Matt Hancock during a media briefing in Downing Street on NHS test and trace. Photograph: Downing Street/PA. - Credit: PA

A council is so fed up with the failures of Downing Street's coronavirus track-and-trace programme that it has decided to launch its own.

Sandwell council in Birmingham has seconded dozens of staff to a new team set up specially to deal with local outbreaks.

The West Midlands council has the seventh highest infection rate in England - 54.1 per 100,000 people. It recently experienced a jump of 332% in the 14 days up to 26 July.

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Councillors now believe the government's track and trace programme is partly to blame.

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'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,' Sandwell's director of public health, Lisa McNally, told Sky News.

'I just don't see the urgency to fix this; I really don't see them running around in a panic.'

McNally claimed that only 60% of confirmed cases were being contacted, leaving four in 10 practically unaware that they may have the virus.

She also shared concerns that data being provided by Westminster was essentially 'meaningless' because tracers failed to fill in people's professions in 80% of cases or described a subject as broadly as being a 'citizen'.

This spurred councillors to launched their own 'lite version' of contact tracing.

'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.'

Among the challenges of sustaining a locally-run programme is communicating with people who do not 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,' 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.'

MORE: Government accused of leaving non-English speakers behind with lack of translated coronavirus messaging

McNally said she has been trying to tell ministers of the issues for weeks but feels like no one wants to hear it.

'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.'

Sandwell has been quick in closing venues where there are suspected cases of coronavirus.

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 not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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