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How is contact tracing working in practice?

EHN Extra has been keeping track of a few EHP contact tracers.
25 June 2020 , Katie Coyne

EHN Extra caught up with level one and two contact tracers. Here’s what they have been up to.

Level two contact tracers

An EHP from the South West of England said the workload was not huge, with perhaps three or four cases in one four-hour shift but none in another shift. He reasoned that the service was possibly gearing up to deal with future spikes in cases.

He said: “It’s a great system that they have built, very clever in that it’s all based at home. It’s a very sophisticated bit of software and it seems to work fine and it’s helping and I think it will help greatly in the future.”

He was slightly concerned about the pubs opening at the start of July and wondered if the service was preparing for a potential increase in cases after that point.

“They have released lots of shifts so contact tracers are available through July and August so if there was a spike we could contact all the new cases very quickly.”

Overall, while the Government was slow to set up contact tracing at the beginning of the pandemic he felt the UK was “ready” for any new spikes. The winter months, he felt, posed the biggest risk for this.

Another EHP felt the contact tracing was "easier" than would be for a food poisoning outbreak, where in the case of listeria, for example, you might have to look back as far as 70 days.

She said: “It[‘s been] a lot easier than a food poisoning outbreak when you are trying to ask what people had eaten days before. And people [are] very cooperative. Most are up to speed with it compared to a food poisoning outbreak where you have to explain the transmission route – people are already experts at COVID-19.

"And everyone seems very compliant and understands the importance of the call, and of self-isolating. Most people are staying in their houses so unless you break all of the lockdown rules, it’s easy to pinpoint where they had picked it up from.

“My concern is that if you ring someone up, and ask if they have had anyone in their house, would they admit they had broken lockdown rules?”

EHP Tony Lewis at the Royal Agricultural University, who has completed his training and being booked into shifts, is still waiting for logins to get onto the track and trace system. He said: “I ring them and they acknowledge that I have this problem and they promise me that it will be dealt with, but it never is.

“This has been going on for weeks now. So I’m still waiting for a login and username. And until I have that I am sat here on shift and twiddling my thumbs.”

When we last spoke to Beth Colvin, EH officer at the Ministry of Defence, she had completed the training and had also been on shift but had not had a case to work with. However, since then she has been told that the scheme has employed too many people and she was no longer needed.

Jane Tait said that while there was no underlying threat, she said there had been a lot of communication from the scheme asking tracers not to speak to the media.

Level one contact tracer

One level one EHP contact tracer who is working on cases argued very strongly that more EHPs should be involved in the response.

He added: “We know for a fact the way the Isle of Man and Wales have dealt with it works. When you read Chris [Ashford’s] stuff – over on the Isle of Man, EH were given resources, as they would have for a food poisoning outbreak, to contact trace and it has worked.

“The English system has been a nationally led, and London based, and local authorities have been pushed aside. The government has recently talked about localised lockdowns, which is basically going back to how it should have been at the start.”

He argued that the centralised approach has not only been too slow to set up, but will have cost more money, which he is deeply troubled by when local authority funding have been so drastically diminished over years, amounting to “a slow death by a thousand cuts”.


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