The council with the highest rate of coronavirus infections in England has launched its own contact-tracing scheme because the government’s national system isn’t fast enough, a local official has claimed.
Dominic Harrison, the director of public health and wellbeing at Blackburn with Darwen Council, revealed the local authority is developing its own contact-tracing system as it deals with a local spike in COVID-19 cases.
“The national system is simply not tracing enough cases and contacts fast enough,” he said.
“We are starting with ‘case tracing’.”
More stringent rules have since been introduced in the local area, along with many other parts of Lancashire, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire.
In the seven days to 27 July, Blackburn and Darwen saw a rate of 83.3 cases per 100,000 people, which put it ahead of all other local authorities in England.
Blackburn with Darwen Council said it will now use its local knowledge if the national contact-tracing process has been unable to contact someone.
Paul Fleming, director of business change at Blackburn with Darwen Council, is leading the development of the new contact-tracing system.
“Test and trace is a vital part of the national strategy to get the virus under control,” he said.
“It is even more vital in areas like ours where we have a rising tide of cases.
“Our system complements the national system because we have the local knowledge of the area and the ability to send officers round to people’s addresses.
“Our system is also beneficial because we can refer those who need to isolate to local support services if necessary.
“Our system has already gone live and we are already seeing its benefits as we have managed to contact people the national system couldn’t.
“I want to ask all residents to continue to work with us, continue to follow our advice and guidance and continue to take responsibility.
“Together we will beat the virus.”
Mohammed Khan, the leader of Blackburn with Darwen 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.”
Kate Hollern, the Labour MP for Blackburn, posted on Twitter: “The only way we can reduce this spread is with local knowledge and cooperation.
“The national system is failing.”
PHE said it was working in partnership with Blackburn with Darwen Council “to enable locally supported contact tracing to enhance local case follow-up as part of the NHS Test and Trace programme”.
If the national contact-tracing system is unable to make contact with someone after two days, they will now refer their details to Blackburn with Darwen Council’s new local contact-tracing team.
If the local team can’t contact someone via phone, text message or email after 48 hours, they will send someone from the council’s local public protection team to their address.
Once contacted, a person will be asked to give details of their recent contacts in order to update the national system.
From that point on, local officials will no longer play a role and the national system will contact those who the person has been in contact with.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously promised the national contact-tracing programme would be “world-beating”.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “For months Labour has warned ministers that, without a vaccine, an effective locally -delivered test, trace and isolate regime would be critical to safe easing from lockdown.
“Instead Boris Johnson is handing multi-million pound contacts to firms like Serco and claiming his approach is ‘world beating’ when it is far from that and showing no signs of improvement.
“He should be honest with the public about his government’s failings.
“Given infection rates are rising and some areas have had restrictions tightened, it is no wonder local authorities are abandoning Johnson’s failed approach and setting up their own systems.
“Local directors of public health, primary care and NHS labs were always better placed to do this vital work effectively and should be given the resources and data to get on with it.”
A government spokesperson said: “Our priority is to curb the spread of this virus and save lives, and local action to tackle outbreaks and keep people safe is a crucial part of the national NHS Test and Trace service.
“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.
“Thanks to NHS Test and Trace more than 218,000 people have been prevented from unknowingly spreading the virus, and last week over 80 per cent of positive cases were reached, and over 75 per cent of their contacts reached as well.”