Councils should Lead ‘Track and Trace’

Ahead of schools re-opening in September, Cllr Alan Hall has backed calls for local councils including Lewisham, to lead on covid 19 track and trace measures. He has written to the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock.

“It’s time for local government lead ‘test and track’ after another Serco failure” say Unite the Union.

Local government has a proven history going back to the end of the 19th century for delivering public health initiatives to local communities. Right now all across the country local public health teams are working incredibly hard to keep us safe, and doing the vast majority of contact tracing. While local authorities, health protection teams and health services staff know their diverse communities and have years of expertise in contact tracing.

Professor Allyson Pollock, co-director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science and iSAGE committee member, told The BMJ, “It is extraordinary that instead of using the tried and tested public health system and building that up with resources, the government has instead put in a centralised, privatised system that has not been shown to work or been evaluated.

“If they had diverted all the money they spent on enabling public health and local authorities and Public Health England, we would have had contact tracing off the ground much sooner and we may have saved lives.”

The union said such a redirection of funding could herald ‘a renaissance in local government’, which already held the public health portfolio, such as health visiting and school nursing services.

Unite national officer for local government Jim Kennedy said: “This foolhardy and expensive reliance on private sector companies by the Tory government to deliver a comprehensive ‘test and trace’ programme is just another example of a misguided outsourcing policy that includes the ignominious failure of G4S to provide adequate security for the 2012 Olympics.

“Local government has a proven history going back to the end of the 19th century for delivering public health initiatives to local communities – it is a scandal that it has been by-passed up to now in favour of controversial outscoring companies where shareholders’ profits trump the public good.

“A new lucrative contract for Serco should be scrapped. Ministers should not fork out millions of taxpayers’ money when the decision is due later this month. Serco has failed spectacularly to find and isolate coronavirus cases in sufficient numbers.

“While not suggesting any impropriety, it should be noted that the health minister Edward Argar worked as a Serco lobbyist before entering parliament and Serco CEO Rupert Soames is the brother of Tory grandee and former MP Sir Nicholas Soames.

“Local government knows its communities and their diverse populations, and its trusted staff are well-suited to knocking on doors to talk to people about Covid-19 as opposed to workers in a remote call centre – and the results, according to the latest figures, are considerably better.

“Boris Johnson’s so-called pledge to have a ‘world beating test and trace’ system in place by June joins the promise of an ‘oven ready Brexit’ in the dustbin of empty rhetoric.”

Unite said that the overall’ test and trace’ policy would fail unless government agreed to pay the wages of those who were forced to self-isolate for two weeks.

Serco’s call handlers have complained of a lack of training and criticised the entire system.

Cllr Alan Hall has written to the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock MP, see the full text of the letter:

Dear Matt Hancock,

I’m writing to you from Lewisham Council, where we are working incredibly hard to slow the spread of coronavirus. I’m writing today to ask you to divert the £10 billion allocated for track and trace operations to local authorities, away from under-performing private companies, when their contracts end on the 23rd of August. 

The headlines covering the Lancet’s research report reveal that the system is not enough to stop a second peak and ‘very bad surges’. This was by no means the first report on the failings of the national system, and this news is very concerning to council teams across the country.

Local public health teams are working incredibly hard to keep us safe, and doing the vast majority of contact tracing. While local authorities, health protection teams and health services staff know their communities and have years of expertise in contact tracing, Serco’s call handlers have complained of a lack of training and criticised the entire system.

I believe that the vital work being done by local authorities, PHE local health protection teams and local health services (including GPs and NHS labs) means we should be put back in charge of testing and contact tracing in the community. This is the system that Wales has opted for, as has Germany, which is working well. 

Your own SAGE committee has told us that 80% of the contacts of all symptomatic cases need to be found and isolated in order to stop the virus spreading further. However, only 55.4% of all contacts in non-complex cases (the national call centre and online system—run by Serco and Sitel) are being identified by the test-and-trace programme. This compares with 98.3% in complex cases, which are handled by local public health teams. This cannot go on.

Council leaders across the country are already taking matters into their own hands, because they can’t afford to wait for Serco and Sitel to get their act together.

For the sake of everyone working so hard to get us through this crisis, making sacrifices for the good of everyone, please stop this atrocious waste of public money and give local authorities the resources they need to scale up the work they’re already doing well. 

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Alan Hall

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