“More than a month after being promised full details of who has caught the disease in their areas, local health chiefs are still desperately lobbying the government’s testing chief, Lady Harding, to break the deadlock and share the data.”
Whitehall still running things centrally (and failing) – Owl
Local outbreaks of Covid-19 could grow undetected because the government is failing to share crucial testing data, council leaders and scientists have warned.
More than a month after being promised full details of who has caught the disease in their areas, local health chiefs are still desperately lobbying the government’s testing chief, Lady Harding, to break the deadlock and share the data.
The situation was described by one director of public health as a “shambles”, while a scientist on the government’s own advisory committee said it was “astonishing” that public health teams are unable to access the information.
The prime minister said on Friday the country was moving from “a huge one-size-fits-all national lockdown programme to one in which we’re able to do more localised responses”, and ministers have told councils and their public health directors to take the lead.
They will be responsible for monitoring the spread of Covid-19 in local areas and deciding when to close schools, offices, care homes and if necessary impose lockdowns on whole towns. As they race to produce outbreak management plans by the end of June, public health directors warn they lack crucial data flowing from Whitehall.
“It can’t be stressed enough how important this data is to us,” said Ian Hudspeth, the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire county council, who speaks on health matters for the Local Government Association. “We’ve been pressing for this since the test-and-trace system was announced.”
Councils are asking for real-time information about who has tested positive, down to the names and contact details of individuals, and failing that by street, postcode, or catchment area of 1,500 people. However, most are only receiving a daily feed of aggregate community test results for the entire upper tier local authority.
This could hinder the ability to spot outbreaks at the earliest opportunity, according to Chris Jewell, an epidemiologist at Lancaster University and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) subgroup on modelling.
“We have to wait for [outbreaks] to emerge through the noise at a much larger spatial scale,” he said. In practical terms, that means waiting for more people to become infected and, he said, “delays are everything in dealing with outbreaks”.
Hudspeth said he had been “lobbying hard” for the information since the beginning of April when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, launched the national coronavirus testing programme.
“If someone has gone into a care home we need to contact them as soon as possible before they go into other areas and spread the virus,” he said. “We need to know on the day so that we can clamp down and prevent the spread.”
Jewell said he found it “astonishing” that local public health officials are unable to get the postcodes of people who have been infected. “I don’t quite understand what the problem is,” he said.
The number of new cases in the UK is falling, but remains just under the 1,000-a-day mark – and health directors are on the alert for local outbreaks of the kind seen in Beijing and in Germany. Last week, three meat-processing plants were shut down in England and Wales after more 100 people tested positive.
“We really do need the data shared,” said Sakthi Karunanithi at Lancashire county council. “Without it we don’t know whether we have localised outbreaks, for example in a single care home, or generalised transmission in the community. This will help us intervene early before the virus spreads wider.”
Greg Fell, who heads public health in Sheffield, told a parliamentary committee last week: “This is not nice-to-know data, this is necessary for the public health response in an emergency.”
Another long-standing director of public health, who asked to be anonymous, said the whole process was a “complete shambles”.
The warning about data comes after directors said they also remained unclear about whether local authorities will have the power to instigate local lockdowns or whether these decisions will be taken at a national level.
The missing information is largely from tests carried out in the national network of drive-in centres coordinated by management consultants at the accounting firm Deloitte, and from postal tests managed by the Northern Ireland laboratory Randox. The data is held by central government, but has not yet flowed through to councils and GPs. By contrast, GPs automatically get results from tests carried out in hospitals using NHS labs.
It is understood civil servants in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), where the test-and-trace effort is being overseen by the Conservative peer Dido Harding, are concerned that sharing details about individuals with councils may fall foul of data protection laws. “Public Health England have the data but they haven’t got the protocols in place to make sure there is that ability to share,” said Hudspeth.
Another source suggested that there had been issues getting de-anonymised data back out of a highly secure IT system intended to protect personal information.
The picture has been complicated by the creation of a new government agency, the Joint Biosecurity Centre. Giving evidence to MPs last week, its chief executive, Clare Gardiner, said her team would be responsible for pushing data out to councils. However, she said the agency was not expected to be fully operational until the end of the summer.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Local outbreaks will continue to be managed by a specialist team from the local authority or PHE, and we have provided £300m to local authorities to further develop local outbreak control plans.”
“Testing data is being made available through local dashboards and we will continue to expand this to provide more data for local areas. The new test-and-trace service has an important role in limiting the spread of the virus nationally, and already thousands of those who have tested positive have been contacted and their close contacts traced.”