Councils across England will be offered near real-time data on infections and a dedicated teams of contact tracers, after growing concerns over the government’s £10bn test-and-trace system.
Whitehall officials plan to assign virus-hunting teams of healthcare professionals to more than 10 local authorities following trials in Leicester, Luton and Blackburn with Darwen.
It is understood that local authorities will also be offered access to a Public Health England database showing live patient-identifiable data to help them spot and contain clusters of infections, if they sign data protection agreements. One health official described the data as “like Nirvana” for street-level disease control.
The shift from the government follows weeks of pressure from local authorities who have said the centrally run system, which Boris Johnson maintained on Thursday was “world-beating”, was hampering their ability to tackle the virus.
A growing number of councils – including several with some of the highest infection rates in the country – had moved to set up their own localised test-and-trace operations owing to concerns that the national system was failing to reach many of the most vulnerable residents, particularly in poorer areas and those with higher proportions of black, Asian and minority ethnic households.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health and social care secretary, said: “These developments should help local authorities. But it’s now clear Boris Johnson’s £10bn top-down tracing regime ran by Serco is nowhere near world-beating as he promised.
“A truly virus-beating service would provide all local areas with detailed datasets, ensure those isolating had financial support and allow local health officials to lead contact tracing.”
The latest official figures from NHS Test and Trace in England show that the scheme was still failing to reach a significant proportion of those who had been in close contact with an infected person.
The headline figures showed that 79% of Covid-infected people referred to the contact-tracing system were successfully reached in the week ending 29 July, as were 82% of their contacts where communication details were provided.
However, for “non-complex” cases – which are dealt with by NHS Test and Trace workers rather than specialist public health teams – the tracers reached just 61% of contacts in the most recent week and have reached 56% since the scheme’s launch on 28 May.
Officials say some of these missed people cannot be reached because an infected person has no contact details for them – for example, they were sitting next to someone on a bus – or the contacts have not responded to texts, emails and calls. The figures show that in around half of these cases, details were available but the contact was not reached.
For non-complex cases who were in the same household as the infected person, the rate was even lower, with just 53% of contacts reached since May.
One explanation for this may be that people are more reluctant to hand over the contact details of people they live with as they would rather inform them directly about their positive test. However, household transmission has been identified as a key passage of Covid-19, so ensuring family members self-isolate and get tested is crucial to clamping down on the virus.
The figures also showed a 17% increase in the number of people testing positive for coronavirus over the past week, to 4,966 people. This is probably down to a rise in the infection rate and an increase in testing, particularly in hotspots.
Councils have to sign a data protection agreement before they can access patient-identifiable data. On Thursday Sheffield city council was given access to Public Health England’s Covid database, which shows in near real time who is testing positive and where any clusters are occurring.
Greg Fell, Sheffield’s director of public health, said: “While some – and I’ve been one of them – have grumbled about [access to data], it is present now and we know that Covid is going to go on for years, so having access to it now allows us to collectively manage the incident.”
It is understood that Bradford, Rochdale and Calderdale councils are in discussions with the government about setting up their own supplementary versions of test and trace, using improved data and a ringfenced team of specialist contact tracers assigned from the national system.
Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), which covers a population of 2.8 million people, is also in discussion with Public Health England about taking on more locally controlled tracing.
NHS Test and Trace failed to reach 47% of the contacts of Covid-positive people in Greater Manchester, meaning 5,725 potentially infected people were been reached, according to figures released by the GMCA this week. The region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, said the system was “hampering our ability to control the virus” and that the issue needed the prime minister’s urgent attention.
A significant number of people with Covid, such as asymptomatic cases who have not sought a test, will not appear in the official testing figures, which means the contract tracers will only be able to reach a small proportion of infected people.
The ONS infection survey, which models infection rates based on a household survey, estimates that there were 36,000 new cases in the most recent week for which data was available.