Coronavirus: Blackburn Council sets up its own contact-tracing system — as ‘world beating national scheme’ not reaching enough people

Borough has highest infection rates in England — but hundreds of residents falling through gaps of Boris Johnson’s ‘world beating’ service

Colin Drury
Tuesday 04 August 2020 15:37
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The English council dealing with the country’s highest coronavirus infection rates has been forced to develop its own contact-tracing system — because the £10bn national scheme is failing to reach hundreds of people who have been exposed to the deadly bug.

Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council has created a specialist team to track Covid-19 cases after the countrywide system was found effectively unfit for purpose.

Dozens of staff have been redeployed from other departments in a bid to reach residents who are being repeatedly missed by NHS Test and Trace — a service Boris Johnson promised would be “world beating” when it launched in June.

The new localised team will track people who national callers have failed to speak to in the crucial 48-hour period after it emerges they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

If officials have still not reached them after two more days, they will escalate the case and visit home addresses.

Pertinently, the model will use community-based teams and take into account language issues — thought to be a major sticking factor with the national scheme.

Mohammed Khan, the leader of the council, said: “Once again we see how local government, with its knowledge and connection to the local area, can rise to the challenge and deliver for our residents.

“I am proud that we have designed and delivered an effective and efficient local system to complement the national programme very quickly. Once again the council has shown local leadership in our battle against this terrible virus.”

He did not say why he thought Blackburn may have come to be in such a precarious position in the first place.

But the move — supported by Public Health England — appears to reflect growing frustration among local officials with the inflexibility of the NHS system.

Sandwell Council in the west midlands has already set up its own team after its public health director, Lisa McNally, said the national service was failing; while in Leicester, council staff have been deployed to carrying out door-to-door knocks.

NHS Test and Trace employs more than 20,000 people through private firms such as Serco and Sitel.

Call handlers aim to make contact with those infected and their contacts to advise them to self-isolate — but if they have had no pick up or response after 10 calls, they are advised to move on to the next case.

The government says it is contacting 81 per cent of Covid-positive people each week and 75 per cent of their contacts.

However, independent research published on Monday found only 50 per cent of contacts were being traced according to an analysis of the government’s own figures.

A government spokesperson said: “We continue to work closely with all local authorities and are providing targeted, additional support where needed, including in Blackburn with Darwen where we have assigned a ring-fenced group of NHS contact tracers to follow up positive cases.”

The Department of Health and Social Care declined to answer how many contacts it had failed to trace in Blackburn specifically.

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