How Devon could have kept its covid infection rate even lower with the right leadership

“As corporate director of Ceredigion county council, Rees, 51, is credited with designing and implementing a “homemade” contact-tracing system that has helped turn Ceredigion into the safest county in mainland Britain, with the lowest infection rate of any local authority.”

Why didn’t we in Devon do something similar?

As owl has mentioned before, Owl believes it was because no one in Devon took overall responsibility for coordinating and managing the local expertise and effort available in the most serious emergency since WWII – see piecemeal response to “please come back later” campaign. All decisions have been taken in Whitehall and local leaders appear to have been content for that to happen.

Early contact-tracing in Welsh county credited with keeping coronavirus infection rate low

Tony Allen-Mills

In a quiet corner of Wales renowned for the beauty of its coastline, a former biology teacher named Barry Rees has emerged as a reluctant hero of the battle against the coronavirus. He would much rather no one talked about him, in case all his good work is undone.

As corporate director of Ceredigion county council, Rees, 51, is credited with designing and implementing a “homemade” contact-tracing system that has helped turn Ceredigion into the safest county in mainland Britain, with the lowest infection rate of any local authority.

“Barry is a bit shy,” said Ben Lake, the Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion, which stretches along Cardigan Bay with a sparsely populated hinterland climbing into the Cambrian mountains. “He’s very modest, but a lot of credit needs to go to him for driving this effort forward.”

Last week the council recorded three new cases of the virus, bringing its total since January to just 45 out of 75,000 residents. Only seven people have died in Ceredigion since the virus took hold of the rest of the country, a death rate one-tenth of the worst-affected parts of Wales. “We are very proud of what Barry and his team have achieved,” said Peter Davies, one of 13 councillors named Davies on the 42-member council.

There is only one snag to Ceredigion’s record, summed up by a Lampeter student on Facebook. “Shhh!,” wrote John Voloudakis. “If we publicise how low the Ceredigion infection rate is, the infected hordes will . . . seek out places they think will be safest, but bring more incubating virus with them.”

It was early in the year that Rees read reports of the contact-tracing schemes of southeast Asian countries. Before his county recorded a single Covid-19 case, Rees and his team set up a tracing scheme that has since been copied by the Isle of Anglesey and is being adapted by Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire councils.

On Friday, Rees appeared before the Welsh parliament’s health committee with Ceredigion’s chief executive, Eifion Evans, to explain how his tiny scheme succeeded where a broader national test-and-tracing effort stumbled. “It has inspired everyone,” said Dai Lloyd, the committee’s chairman.

“In Ceredigion we were facing losing 600 residents by the end of June if we did nothing,” Evans said. As Easter approached, the county’s population was close to twice its usual size, with thousands of students at Aberystwyth University and visitors flocking to Cardigan Castle and the sandy beaches of Tresaith, Aberporth and New Quay.

Even after the university closed and holiday camps and caravan parks shut down, epidemic models were still predicting 200 deaths in the area, Evans said. “We asked, what else can we do? Loss of life is not an option.”

It was at a “gold command” emergency strategy meeting that Rees “piped up”.

“We had scope to create a homemade system. We had colleagues with experience of tracing cases of legionella and food-poisoning. Given that our [virus] numbers were very low, we thought
contact-tracing could be effective,” he said. It proved more than a question of ringing around to ask locals who they had been in contact with. “We were moving to new ground in terms of using personal data,” said Rees, who joined the council two years ago after a 16-year career as a teacher. “We had data protection officers to ensure we were operating within legislation.”

For national tracing efforts, he noted, “the starting point . . . is receipt of a positive test result”. But Rees found a way of getting started much earlier. As one of the largest employers in the county with 4,000 staff, the council had “good information” on employees calling in sick with coronavirus symptoms. “We could follow them before they were tested. The fact that we were able to pick up some of our staff at a symptomatic stage, rather than waiting for a positive result, was very beneficial in turning this around.”

Rees is the first to acknowledge that many other factors helped contain the virus in Ceredigion, from the low density of the population to its distance from the main travel corridors of the M4 and A55, and the council’s rapid introduction of restrictive measures. Rees said his team had contacted every one of the confirmed cases and every member of council staff who reported virus symptoms. Not everyone was thrilled to hear from the tracking team.

“Some people can be quite defensive,” he said. “But the vast majority welcomed the intervention and felt supported by it.”

Last week it became clear that the council’s pride in its virus-beating status was tinged with angst over word getting out. The main fear in Ceredigion is that a return of tourists and students might mean a return of the virus.

The Welsh government has come under increasing pressure to follow England’s example in easing lockdown restrictions. “There is serious concern about the impact on the Welsh economy,” said Matthew MacKinnon, director of the Centre for Welsh Studies in Cardiff.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Rees has done a terrific job, even if he shies from media attention. The council declined to make him available for interview, leaving unanswered the big question posed by Bev Espley on the county’s Facebook support group: “Why hasn’t it been done on a national level?”