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‘Someone’s doing the contact tracing, but it’s not us…’

EHN Extra spoke to more EHPs involved in the national contact tracing initiative.
04 June 2020 , Katie Coyne

Some EHPs have applied for contact tracing roles and were waiting to hear back. Others have been taken on as level 2 contact tracers with NHS Professionals. Mostly, those that have been taken on have completed their training. Two have carried out a contact tracing shift – but so far have had no cases to work on.

Extra spoke to EHP Jane Tait last week about her role contact tracing and she was positive about the training but frustrated about the process. Tait has still not had a case to work on but queried whether the level 2 was acting as a bit of a backup “like the Nightingale hospitals”, ready if we have a second spike in cases.

One EHP from the South West of England agreed: “Like any new workforce it will take time to bed down and become integrated but it is already making a real difference allowing normal life and the UK economy to be restored more quickly.

“I suspect some of the new service personnel is perhaps forming a reserve at the moment but that’s not a bad thing when you think of the complexity and uncertainty of tackling this dreadful disease.”

He added: “It is quiet at the moment but my view is the NHS and Public Health England have done a tremendous job, recruiting, training and commissioning professionally qualified case workers at [level 2] to do this vital work.”

He said he felt confident he now had the skills and experience to “bring an important contribution to the COVID fight”.

Beth Colvin, EH officer at Ministry of Defence, was also happy with the training and has used it to create material to assist MoD contact tracers. She has also been on shift but not had a case to work with.

Colvin said: “When I was asked to do it I did point out that it will be done by the NHS as well, so you're double tapping, and actually they're finding that when they phone people to do that contact tracing, they'd had already been contacted by the NHS.

“So they're always a step behind the NHS. So somebody's obviously getting cases.”

EHP Tony Lewis at the Royal Agricultural University has been chasing a login to get on to the contact tracing software for several days now in order to start. Lewis said getting to this stage has been a “bit of a nightmare”. He said while there was a clear logic to the way the system has been set up it wasn’t easy due to the "multiplicity" of agencies involved.

He said: “So you ring up NHS Professionals because you think you're working for them and they say, ‘We can't deal with this. You’ve got to speak to Sitel [contracted support]. And so you try to speak to them, and you end up with a call centre. It appears to be a quite a complex arrangement.”

On the training, Lewis said: “Some of it is good. But for an EH officer we know the mechanics of doing contact tracing and how you work with people to get them to remember what they did on particular day and who they met, and all that sort of stuff. We know how to do that. EH officers are good at talking to people.

“The training is very formalised. You are required to use pre written scripts when talking to cases, and some of those are very, what I would call, formal and cold. So you have to get used to doing that. I think there's a lot of duplication in there.

“Some of the training is really good, and things that EH officers wouldn't normally think of. So, you're potentially dealing with families that have got coronavirus, individuals, children, dealing with bereaved.

“There's issues of child protection to be aware of, issues of adults safeguarding, to be aware of and handling very, very sensitive data like information about the health of individuals, the circumstances of an individual's illness.”

Lewis flagged concern that the level 1 teams at the local level could become overwhelmed. “The danger in this is that you're going to have quite a lot of cases that are escalated up the chain. And the danger is that we end up with local authorities being swamped with a lot of work, a lot of tracing to do with and perhaps without the resources to enable them to do it.”

But, he counselled, we will have to wait and see. “This is just kicking off, so we are at the very early stages.”

One Northern Ireland-based EHP was more cynical. He said: “This is just political window dressing. It's not serving any function whatsoever. Just to go to the media and say ‘look what we have got’ and it gives them the opportunity to relax the other preventative measures. This should have been done in March.”

He has nevertheless volunteered to be part of the national contact tracing scheme as he has experience in setting up best practice contact tracing schemes around Legionella outbreaks. Having gone through the interview process and told he had been accepted via a 'do-not-reply' email, he was given a contact number that rings out, and told to report to offices in England.

“I'm based in Northern Ireland, which they knew because they talked about this,” he said “[They said I] would be home-based and it would be largely contacting by telephone.”

He has found numbers for these offices but they have no knowledge of the scheme, or what he is supposed to do next.

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