Not (good) enough

The whole edifice on which the idea that we can all go back to work, is built on, is contact tracing. Never mind fancy technology, much of this system will rely not so much on fancy apps, as boots on the ground.

Contact tracing has already been used in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Germany. The British have used it successfully too, when helping to stem the outbreak of Ebola in Africa.

How does it work? When someone is identified as infected, a list is prepared of all the people with whom they’ve recently been in prolonged contact. Those people will then be tracked down and asked to self-isolate. The system can certainly be speeded up and improved with a mobile phone based app. This can show people who have come into contact with the infected person who they may not know about (fellow travellers on public transport for instance)

Our contact tracing system is meant to be in place by 1st June. It requires that 24,000 contact tracers have already been recruited. They will gather contacts from patients and trace those people by phone or email.

The system relies on interplay between a national centrally located effort and local knowledge. So tracers are being recruited both centrally and locally. They will need to interact with local GPs, find contacts with infected people, identify people who are self isolating, and generally police matters locally. National oversight there may be, but it is clear that a lot of local knowledge will be needed too.

There is a problem here. Firstly the Director of Public Health in Somerset appears to be out of the loop. When we asked how many tracers had been recruited for the local effort in the West Country she told The Leveller® “Public Health England are leading on this programme so all questions need to go to them really.”

All well and good but getting responses from Public Health England is not easy or speedy.

So we checked elsewhere. Other council public health bodies in the West County are clearly in the loop. Two sources separately confirmed to us (albeit on condition of being anonymous) that the West Country has only managed to recruit 50 contact tracers (to the 25th May). That’s to cover an area from South Gloucestershire, through Bristol Somerset and down to Lands End.

While this sounds hopelessly inadequate for a population of 3.5m, the bigger question is this. Surely if the system is not up to scratch our Director of Public Health needs to know. If there are likely to be problems in the county, they are bound to be dealt with more effectively with local knowledge.

Especially as according to the Secretary of State for Health, Directors of Public Health “play an absolutely crucial role in the decision-making in the system.” Our Public Health Director will only be able to make those decisions if she knows where the problems are and is kept in touch by central government.

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