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English test and trace system ‘set up to cope with far more cases than it gets’

CIEH webinar examines how national and local systems are starting to work together.
09 July 2020 , Sarah Campbell

Reports that contact tracers in England have been logging on for shifts but getting no cases to follow up are because the system was set up to cope with 100,000 cases a day and the actual number of infections is far below that level.

This is according to the panel of a CIEH ‘Covid Conversations’ webinar, Contact tracing update with Public Health England. Janet Russell, the senior coordinating officer for the Yorkshire and Humber region’s test and trace service, consultant epidemiologist Maya Gobin, who is working for Public Health England, and public health adviser Andrew Howe, also from PHE, explained how the national testing and tracing service is working alongside local government.

They also addressed questions from attendees about the development of the national service. Howe said: “This was developed at pace in certain conditions and there is much room for improvement, everybody agrees with that. There is a vast range of service improvements coming on almost every day.

He added: “In particular, there is [some] really important work with local government on this. There’s a lot of effort now going into thinking how can local government support the contact tracing service. How can local knowledge be used to access communities, particularly vulnerable communities, that aren’t accessing either testing or contact tracing? We know people don’t know how to get a test if they get ill despite our national messages.”

The panel also answered a question about face coverings and social distancing, particularly in workplaces and hospitality premises. Gobin confirmed that – as far as contact tracing is concerned – a person is considered to have been in ‘close contact’ (within 1m for at least one minute) or ‘wider contact’ (within 2m for at least 15 minutes), whether they are wearing face coverings or not.

This means, for example, that staff in a restaurant must observe distancing rules whether or not they are wearing face coverings (including face shields – although shields may be under review, Gobin and Howe said).

Howe said: “The experts are looking at international evidence on this at the moment. It’s worth adding that PPE is only treated as a special exception in the case of healthcare workers who have been instructed and are in a closed supervised environment in putting on and taking off of PPE. Normal masks in use generally do not exclude you from the [social distancing] rules.”

Watch the whole webinar here.

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