Cumbria’s ace test-and-tracers put Whitehall officials to shame

When it comes to tracking Covid-19, the Lake District proves it is best to go local.

Tom Calver, Gabriel Pogrund and Hannah Al-Othman

In May, 10 days before the launch of the national test-and-trace scheme, Cumbria set up England’s first fully functioning local version.

Members of Cumbria county council’s sexual health team — more used to tracking cases of chlamydia — were drafted in for their contact-tracing skills. They work with housing officers, who often know where vulnerable people are.

“Often, we identify someone who tested positive, and someone on the local environmental health team will say, ‘Yes, we know that person’,” said Colin Cox, Cumbria’s director of public health. “The skill of the local district council teams in knowing the complexities of their patch is just phenomenal.”

The experiment appears to have paid off. At the time of its launch, Barrow-in-Furness — Cumbria’s second-biggest town — had the highest coronavirus infection rate in the country. Although cases have soared again in the northwest, Cumbria’s rate of 87 per 100,000 is the lowest in the region.

Before the pandemic, Emma Bundock, 43, was an environmental housing manager. Since May, she has led a three-person team tracing contacts for Allerdale, a district that includes Grasmoor and Workington.

“The officers who work on this live in the communities they’re trying to support,” Bundock said. “We’re passionate about the people we’re trying to help because ultimately, it could be one of your own.”

Most cases come from the national test-and-trace programme, 24 hours after call centre operatives have had a go at making contact.

Sometimes, said Bundock, “the national tracers have not asked the questions that make the person properly think about who they’ve been in touch with, what they’ve done, or who they’ve seen”.

Cumbria’s scheme was the first and there are now 93 local contact-tracing teams. “Complex” cases involving outbreaks in hospitals, care homes and prisons are automatically passed to local teams. In the week to September 30 they reached 97.1% of contacts, compared with just 62.4% by the national teams.

In many Covid-19 hotspots, the national system is faring even worse. Blackburn with Darwen, Bury and Manchester have some of the highest infection rates, but little more than half of all non-complex contacts are being identified. In Slough, the figure is 42%.

In August, the Department of Health said NHS Test and Trace would become “local by default”. “We’re still trying to figure out what that means,” said Cox.

The department said: “NHS Test and Trace is breaking chains of transmission thanks to local and national teams working hand in glove. Almost 700,000 people have been contacted and told to isolate.”