NHS test and trace is cutting 6,000 contact tracer jobs and allocating roles to regional teams to work with councils, following criticism by local authorities that the centrally run system was failing to tackle local outbreaks.
The government announced on Monday that local and national teams would work together to make sure they reach as many people as possible who have been in contact with someone who has coronavirus. The change means the number of national contact tracers will be reduced from 18,000 to 12,000 on 24 August.
Currently, a national system is used to contact those who are at risk of having contracted the virus, but the move means tracers will focus on specific areas, and if they cannot make contact with a resident within a set period of time, local public health officials can use the data provided by NHS test and trace to follow up.
This could mean councils sending tracers to knock on doors to tell people who cannot be reached by phone that they have been in contact with a coronavirus case, as has been done under pilot schemes.
The new proposed method has already been trialled in Blackburn with Darwen, Luton and Leicester, the Department for Health and Social Care said.
Public health experts have been calling for more local authority involvement in the government’s test-and-trace system since the start of the pandemic, arguing that experienced contact tracers have been employed by councils for decades, tackling infections such as tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases.
In recent weeks, councils with high Covid infection rates have taken matters into their own hands and launched their own contact-tracing operations to plug holes in the centralised system, which is being run by contractors such as Serco.
Jeanelle de Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health said that they had always been clear that a “team of teams” approach across local and national organisations was better.
She said the announcement was a further step “in recognising the role and expertise of directors of public health and their teams within local councils”. She added that to move towards this new system required “the right level of resources” not just in coming weeks but long-term.
Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, said: “We have always been clear that NHS test and trace must be local by default and that we do not operate alone – we work with and through partners across the country.”
“After successful trials in a small number of local areas, I am very pleased to announce that we are now offering this integrated localised approach to all local authorities.”
Sandra Husbands, director of public health for Hackney, said the issue would be with making sure everything was linked: “They set up this mass contact tracing system, so everything we do really needs to be linked to it to make sure we have a continuous record.” She added that if the new system was to work, there would need to be no delay in passing details to local teams for the individuals who could not be reached by the national system.
One senior local health official, who did not want to speak on record, said he interpreted the move as “the government saying we can’t do this [control local flare-ups] only from London”. He added: “Whether or not you interpret it as shifting the blame and responsibility [to local teams] – I wouldn’t go that far – but it’s a reflection that it can’t be either/or – it has to be both [local and national].”
Another public health director said: “We’ve shifted from a single, universal pandemic across the whole country to a series of localised flare-ups. That’s why the nimbleness and ability to get on top of things at a local level really does matter.”
One contact tracer, speaking anonymously, said their colleagues were worried about losing their jobs, even though there was not enough work to go around: “Even if they keep 12,000 tracers, that is still too many. If there is a big second wave, then even then there is too many … Everyone is just bored now, really bored, just arguing with each other or managers. Morale is so low.”
It comes after unions and regional mayors warned that the government’s flagship test-and-trace system would fail unless ministers agreed to pay the wages of those who were forced to self-isolate for two weeks.
Millions of low-paid workers either do not qualify for the statutory sick pay of £95.85 a week or cannot afford to live on the allowance, leaving them unable to pay their bills if they have to quarantine due to coronavirus.