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County Council and Public Health England Now Take On Local Test and Trace

Published on: 7 Nov, 2020
Updated on: 8 Nov, 2020
By Julia Armstrong
local democracy reporter

The county council and Public Health England are to help hunt Covid-infected residents not found by the national test and trace service.

A Surrey telephone-based contact tracing service is expected to be up and running by the end of this month.

If the national service has failed to get a response in 24 hours from someone who has tested positive, their details will be passed to the Surrey team who will try to reach them.

SCC public health director Ruth Hutchinson said: “We will pull out all the stops to ensure we talk to them and find their contacts.”

A close contact is someone who has spent more than 15 minutes within two metres of a positive Covid case.

The Local Government Association (LGA), representing England’s 353 local authorities, has long pushed for councils to have the powers and resources to lead contact tracing, and about 100 councils have already launched their own schemes.

“As in other areas of the South East, we are working hard to get this in place,” Ms Hutchinson said. “In the North, they started this earlier, so … we can learn from them.”

The latest track and trace statistics, for 22 till 28 October, showed they reached just short of 60% of cases in England. This means in that week, 131,136 known contacts were not told to self-isolate.

LGA chairman Ian Hudspeth said local health protection teams had reached 94.8% of complex cases assigned to them.

The idea is that any missed call from the team will show up as a single local phone number, because some people are reluctant to answer an unknown number.

But Ms Hutchinson said the county’s figure for national tracing of positive residents was usually just more than 80%.

Some councils, such as Peterborough and Leeds, are knocking on doors if people are not responding, but Surrey will be just a telephone service. Portsmouth launched its own scheme on November 4.

Ms Hutchinson said: “Our contact tracers have nearly finished their training but we’re having to do our modelling, estimating the number of calls we’ll get. We’re not waiting, we’re very busy. It is not as if there’s a vacuum, there is a national system in place.

She added: “The rates here are lower than the national but they’ve still been going up in the past few weeks, so the more we can do as a local system the better.”

“We’ve got a high percentage who engage with that. But it will be really good to increase that percentage. It is fundamental that people isolate; that is absolutely crucial to stop the spread.

“It is a big operation, but definitely worth the investment.”

The service is funded by the remnants of a government grant to local authorities back in June. Surrey was allocated nearly £3.48 million to handle local Covid outbreaks.

There will be16 local contact tracers in Surrey, mainly existing council staff undergoing “robust online training developed by Public Health England”. Four of them have been recruited especially.

Other employees can be added if case numbers increase significantly.

Robert Jenrick

A few weeks ago, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show: “People who know their own community, particularly harder-to-reach communities, are bound to be better than Whitehall or national contact tracers.”

Fines for not self-isolating if contacted by test and trace start at £1,000 and increase up to £10,000 for repeat offenders.

There is a legal requirement to self-isolate for 10 days if you test positive, or 14 days if someone in your household has tested positive or you are contacted by test and trace and told to self-isolate.

If you’re advised to self-isolate and you’re on a low income, unable to work from home and will lose money as a result, you may be entitled to a payment of £500 from your local authority.

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