"Local knowledge" could help hunt down coronavirus in Lancashire communities, says county councillor

A Lancashire county councillor and former public health worker says that the success of government plans to track and trace coronavirus in the community will be influenced by the "local knowledge and insights" of the people undertaking the work.
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Green Party member Gina Dowding also warned that so-called ‘contact tracers’ must be recruited in sufficient numbers in order to be successful. She claimed that at least 40 would be required in her home district of Lancaster – suggesting that hundreds would be needed across the county as a whole.

On Thursday, the government announced a move to large-scale community testing, which will see 18,000 people recruited across the country – including 3,000 medics and public health workers. They will be trained up in the coming weeks.

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A similar approach adopted at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK, to trace every contact of a known case, was controversially abandoned on 12th March, as community transmission of the disease increased and the government moved from a policy of containing coronavirus to delaying its spread.

County Cllr Gina DowdingCounty Cllr Gina Dowding
County Cllr Gina Dowding

County Cllr Dowding welcomed the rethink, which was revealed by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing – but said that testing levels had to continue to be increased.

“We also need a system to find people with the virus, isolate them quickly and trace those they have been in contact with – a community-based response allowing us stamp out the inevitable outbreaks of Covid-19 which will arise as the lockdown is lifted.

“It’s essential that the government invests in a new locally-based public health workforce of case finders and contact tracers – probably around 40 or more staff for a district the size of Lancaster – who are trained to use local knowledge and insights to reduce and stamp out micro outbreaks in our local community.

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“The government is working on new technologies such as phone apps, but these will not be sufficient in themselves. They might not be trusted by the public and many people don’t have smart phones.

“In any case, we will need skilled people with local insights to get to each person who has been confirmed as Covid positive to break the chain of infection. We now know that this virus will be circulating for a number of years and this important task cannot be left to volunteers in the medium term.

“Some volunteers could be trained in the short term – but for an effective and available team of case-finders, we will need full-time permanent staff, County Cllr Dowding said.

She added that the workforce could also carry out other Covid-related work.

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“These staff could then also ensure that those who were found to be suffering from Covid-19 were supported in quarantine, with daily contact to safely conduct medical tests where necessary. Crucially, they would then trace the patient’s contacts, test them and isolate them if they are infected.

“The case finding and contact tracing will be necessary as until we have a vaccine rolled out there will still be a very large proportion of the population who are not immune, “ County Cllr Dowding added.