Exclusive: Covid Test Data Held Back From Publication Over Community Cohesion Concerns

Arj Singh
·4-min read

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Postcode-level coronavirus testing data is being withheld from publication due to councils’ fears it could lead to certain communities being stigmatised.

HuffPost UK understands some local authorities have raised concerns about the government’s plan to make public detailed testing data, first revealed on this website.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has raised the issue at cabinet.

Councils are worried that releasing the data could lead to people in certain areas becoming stigmatised – for example if those in particular neighbourhoods test positive in larger numbers than others.

They are also concerned this could damage community cohesion, and that giving out data in too much detail could lead to individuals or families being identified.

The issue of detailed coronavirus testing data has come under the spotlight after Leicester was placed into a local lockdown following an outbreak.

Following a row over a “lost week” in the city, when the status of a local outbreak was not clear to council and public health leaders due to a lack of information, all councils began to get access to granular postcode data late last month.

Government officials wanted to make the data public, with the first tranche slated for release two weeks ago, but the information has been held back after councils raised their concerns, a Whitehall source said.

A medical worker takes a swab at a drive-in coronavirus testing facility at the Chessington World of Adventures resort in south west London (Photo: PA)
A medical worker takes a swab at a drive-in coronavirus testing facility at the Chessington World of Adventures resort in south west London (Photo: PA)

It came as Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called on the government to share more data privately with local authorities so they could better manage infections in their areas.

He said ministers were “at risk of not observing their own law” by failing to provide daily data, which identifies patients, to councils.

The Labour former health secretary also called for clarity on the threshold for government intervention if there was an outbreak.

The metro-mayor said a high number of cases in Rochdale may be linked to a warehousing operation that had been the “focus of some extra work with regard to testing”.

He said: “I think what we have seen through this is some of the lowest paid jobs have some working conditions which are, I’m afraid, leaving people exposed to picking up the virus.

“That seems to be the common theme in some of the communities.”

Burnham said testing data that included a person’s work postcode as well as their home postcode would help to get to the “root cause” of any outbreak.

He added: “Working conditions remain a big concern. Many people who work in these places simply cannot afford to self isolate.”

Appearing alongside Burnham at a joint press conference, Liverpool city region mayor Steve Rotheram said a rise in cases in the south of the city involved people aged between 15 and 24 and work was going on to establish links between them.

He said: “The only way we can do this, or the way we can be helped in doing this, is for the government to work collaboratively with us.”

Burnham said: “We want to be in a position to take every possible measure we can to avoid a local lockdown.

“It’s in everyone’s interest that councils have all the information they need to identify potential outbreaks then if they identify them, to respond quickly and effectively to them.”

Hancock has previously said Manchester did have access to data, after Burnham called for more “track and tracing” information to be shared.

Ian Hudspeth, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “More information is being shared with councils but we also need to see improvements to the individual case data, including making the data available daily, adding UPRNs [property reference numbers], and providing more information about workplaces.

“The public and those working on the frontline need to have a complete picture of the impact this virus has had in our neighbourhoods and communities. With the right powers, flexibilities, data and long-term funding, councils can help to manage potential outbreaks and prevent the spread of infection.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.