Government hindering Covid response by ignoring councils and failing to share data, MPs told

Local authority leaders say there is 'no sense that the government is listening'

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Wednesday 26 August 2020 13:35 BST
Leicester was the first area to face a local lockdown
Leicester was the first area to face a local lockdown

The government has been accused of ignoring councils and failing to share data with local public health teams, hindering the effort to control Covid-19.

Local government leaders told MPs on Wednesday that there had been "no coordination" by central government, that orders were handed down by diktat from Whitehall, and that local authorities learned about new initiatives at the same time as the media.

"It certainly has been quite evident throughout that we have not been trusted with the data and we've not been trusted with the powers," Sir Peter Soulsby, mayor of Leicester, told a hearing of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus.

"The combination of those two aspects has very significantly hindered our ability to respond as we'd wish to and could."

Ian Hudspeth of the Local Government Association said the government has given "no reasons" to explain why it was still not sharing adequate data with public health teams to help them fight the virus.

"Certainly data is now available to us but I think not sufficient," he said, adding that councils needed "real time data getting down to ward level" to really respond quickly to pandemics.

Public health experts have for weeks been urging the government to decentralise its test and trace system, amid evidence that local councils are getting better results than the centralised and privatised system using call-centres staffed by outsourcing company Serco.

The Independent Sage group of experts said earlier this month that it was "impossible to fathom" why the government was running such a centralised system and said ministers should redirect resources towards councils.

But Sir Peter, whose city of Leicester was the first in the country to be put under local lockdown, said government refusal to trust and cooperate with councils and the public health teams was had potentially worsened the situation.

"Our director of public health, for example, in the middle of June identified that there appeared to be a spike in Leicester and asked a number of questions about what that may or may not indicted," he said.

"He was unable to access that data which would have allowed him to have predicted and perhaps pre-empted the local lockdown that was eventually applied to Leicester. That inability to access the data directly and the lack of good reason for it has not been available to him has been a major frustration and handicap."

While the local government leaders said there had been some improvement in data sharing in recent weeks, they said the quality of and level of access to information was still not good enough.

Sir Peter added: "It is better than it was but it is still inconsistent, it is still erratic, it still comes through after a very significant time delay and it does mean that although we do the follow-up tracing and testing ourselves it is happening far too late.

"People who have been identified as having had the disease are out in the community without their contacts being traced in a way that is certainly not effectively and in a timely fashion addressing the disease."

He said the government's head of test and trace, Dido Harding, had told him that certain data such as ethnicity and address was not available. Many councils have set up their own local contact tracing systems amid concern that the centralised system operated by the government is not functioning as well as it could.

The mayor of Leicester added: "We were invited to meetings and told very little of the government's plans and had very little influence over them. Certainly as the lockdown has been loosened somewhat in Leicester we've found most of what's being going on from news releases.

"In terms of government coordination, I haven't seen any. The problem is it's all coming from the centre. There's no sense that the government is listening, and listening to feedback.

"In order to coordinate you need feedback ... you go to a meeting and they tell you what it is, there is no listening and responding."

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