Cllr Ian Hudspeth is Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board and Leader of Oxfordshire County Council
Good community relations are an essential part of public life, something which has been proved even more crucial during the pandemic.
When it comes to dealing with authorities, people tend to trust their local council rather than national remote-sounding bodies. This is because they can relate to their area and circumstances, including what’s going on in their street or neighbourhood.
COVID-19 is best understood as a pattern of local outbreaks, rather than a national pandemic with a similar impact in every community. With the right data and resources, councils can understand where the outbreaks are happening and are able to act swiftly to contain them.
Environmental health officers, alongside public health practitioners, including infection control nurses and those working in sexual health services, are among the existing local authority roles which have unparalleled skills and experience in dealing with other communicable diseases such as measles, meningitis, and food-borne illnesses such as E.coli.
Councils are now increasingly pooling these valuable resources and using them to support the national test and trace system, to combat the emerging second wave.
The latest weekly statistics for NHS Test and Trace and coronavirus testing (for the week ending 7 October) demonstrate this, with cases handled by local health protection teams showing 97.7 per cent of close contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate. This compares to 57.6 per cent of close contacts handled either online or by call centres in the national system. The same figures show that overall, the number of close contacts of people who tested positive for COVID-19 reached through the system is at its lowest weekly rate since Test and Trace began, dipping below 70 per cent.
These worrying figures show that the national test and trace system is failing to track down all those who need to be contacted, to help stop this second wave. They also prove what we in local government have been saying throughout: that councils are uniquely placed with the local knowledge, skills, and connections, to let people know if they need to self-isolate and can be supported to do so. To build on this, councils need the real-time data, funding, and other resources on the ground in order to combat the rising rates of infections.
The Government’s new local alert system means that those in the ‘very high’ tier will receive extra financial support, including for local testing and contact tracing, to help spot and contain spikes in infection. To date, more than 90 local authorities have already set up, or are about to launch, their own locally-supported contact tracing systems, to complement the national scheme, building on the growing consensus that local is best. We have seen some encouraging developments since the Test and Trace system was launched in May, including better sharing of data with councils compared to the early months of the pandemic; a substantial increase in testing capacity, with Directors of Public Health having more say over how this is allocated; and improved recognition of the role and value of councils in promoting messages and advice.
Challenges which remain include integrating the local and national – and treating both with equal respect and resources, rapid access to testing and results within reasonable reach of people’s homes, and boosting local laboratory capacity. The latter point is particularly important if we are to reach the Government’s stated target of 500,000 tests by the end of this month. Councils being able to decide where local mobile testing units are placed, for example, is also vital to making it as easy as possible for those who need a test to get one, particularly for people living in rural and sparsely-populated areas where transport links are weaker.
This expansion of testing should also be seen across the country, in addition to targeted support for areas with high levels of infection, so that those regions with lower-prevalence can prevent any outbreaks before they begin and escalate.
Local government can play a major part in test and trace, but it must complement the national system rather than duplicate or compete with it. Using councils’ local ‘soft’ approach and intelligence, they can join up the data received from the national test and trace service with local knowledge, to better spot potential clusters in workplaces and other locations, acting swiftly to contain them.
This could mean they are able to go to people’s homes to make sure they are aware of what they need to do, while also referring anybody who needs to self-isolate to local support services if necessary. A telephone call or gentle knock at the door from someone at the local council is far more likely to result in someone agreeing to comply with a request to self-isolate, than someone calling from a remote office elsewhere in the country, or a message appearing on an app. It’s not only the reassurance of seeing somebody in person or a recognisable local number appear on the phone, but it’s about speaking to someone who knows and can relate to their area, letting them know what help is available.
Just as we are starting to see different restrictions apply in various parts of the country, we know from our experience to date that one size does not fit all. By working closely with NHS Test and Trace, including the crucial sharing of real-time data, providing adequate funding and personnel, councils across all regions can help deliver a complementary system which works in the best interests of all our residents, to suppress the virus and hopefully get our lives back to what we are used to.