This is a collective statement on behalf of SHA bringing together public health evidence and other opinions on a key Covid policy issue.

The government ‘s centralised programme in England for testing and tracing – and the use of outsourcing

  1. Key messages:

  • The Government has not yet passed the five tests it set itself for easing lockdown
  • The government said that it would only consider easing lockdown once the country has passed five tests. One of these tests [TEST 5] is “confidence that we can avoid a second peak of infection that overwhelms the NHS”
  • The Devolved Administrations and many scientists and public health professionals doubt whether or not we have “passed this test” They doubt we have the capacity to detect and respond to local surges in infection or control outbreaks as lockdown is eased – and that a second or even third peak of infection will occur. Policy is diverging across the UK with mixed messaging to the public and a high risk of losing a coherent and effective strategy of suppression.
  • To manage our “exit “from lock down we need to be able to recognise new cases when they occur, test and isolate people who are infected, trace and test their contacts – and to have the flexibility resource and leadership to organise responses at a local level.
  • Other countries in Europe are using phased lifting of measures, across regions and settings. The EU Roadmap states that “the lifting of measures should start with those with a local impact and be gradually extended to measures with a broader geographic coverage, taking into account national specificities. This would allow to take more effective action, tailored to local conditions where this is appropriate, and to re-impose restrictions as necessary, if a high number of new cases occurs (e.g. introducing a cordon sanitaire)” For example, why would there be a relaxation of control measures in dense urban areas with crowded public transport at the same time as some parts of the UK that have had no new confirmed cases for 18 plus days and some areas with very few cases? We need detailed stats and maps by district council of all new cases by area of residence over time (at a more granular level than unitary authorities) The Orkney Western isles and Shetland remain in lock down when they have had no cases for 18, 21 and 32 days respectively and when a cordon sanitaire could be put in place
  • Integrated response In order to lift measures while retaining control of the virus, we must identify cases rapidly, isolate and contact trace: so testing is crucial but we must have the ability to test the right people and to rapidly act on the results

o Prevention of new cases is always better and much cheaper than critical care. Investment in hospitals to respond to COVID19 has been absolutely necessary but will always have less impact on population level health outcomes than control measures.

o The UK has an excellent public health and primary care system, both of which have been eroded and underfunded in the last 10 years. There are skills and knowledge and capability in these that would provide an effective and efficient response to moving through the next phases of the pandemic, if invested in. However, both these sectors have been excluded and marginalised to the detriment of their local communities

o For a “test, trace and isolate “ system of control and response to outbreaks to be effective, data must be shared and agencies need to work together at national , regional and local level , coordinate and integrate their response if it is to be effective .No one agency has the knowledge , skills, or resources to do this on their own – and Whitehall in particular needs to recognise that central control is bound to fail.

o Capacity for testing should provide real time data to help monitor community transmission, link with contact tracing systems and enable local authorities to function autonomously, as well as part of a national response to this pandemic.

o Much of the infrastructure for testing commissioned by the Government has been led centrally – much of it has been established from scratch. The original drivers for increasing testing capacity were to:

      1. Allow NHS staff to be released back to work on the front line and
      2. respond politically to the growing criticism about the UKs track record on testing o The plight of care homes and the huge death toll from COVID 19 in those institutions is a classic illustration of the failures, which result from over centralization and reliance on hierarchical control and power. This example also illustrates the potential of local government and effective leadership to understand and respond quickly to local circumstances, to innovate, and to “stitch systems “together and make them work.
  • Outsourcing in England Rather than invest or expand our existing laboratory system Ministers chose instead to outsource the provision of testing for COVID 19 in England. They used special powers to bypass normal tendering and award a string of multimillion pound contracts for delivering and processing tests to private companies such as Deloitte, Randox laboratories [£ 133 million] and involved big pharma companies such as GSK, Roche and AstraZeneca and university research teams in creating mega or “ Lighthouse “ labs. These organisations:
    1. Provide swab tests on hospital patients and COVID tests run by NHS labs and Public Health England.
    2. Collect swabs from NHS workers, social care staff and other key workers at 50 drive -in centres and 70 mobile units, which are processed and reported on through a network of 3 mega “lighthouse “ labs
    3. Send out home testing kits for eligible persons with coronavirus symptoms, aged 65 or over, or who cannot work from home
    4. Offer an “on -line portal “through which CQC registered care homes [65 +] can order test kits
    5. Issue serology and swab tests for ONS surveillance and research studies
  • Together Government claims that they can offer 100000 tests a day.

o However when backlogs develop, they tend to operate as separate “ silos” as illustrated when 50000 tests were sent to the US rather than workload shared between them.

o More importantly, this testing system does not provide or allow access to test data by local organisations or Public Health England.

o More than half of tests by May12th have been done by outsourced companies and results are “disappearing into a black hole” A Health Service Journal analysis on May 13th said that recent government testing figures “suggests that in recent days around two thirds of tests have taken place under the commercial lab scheme, for which the data is not available locally. This includes more than 7,000 positive test results in the past three days, and tens of thousands over recent weeks”.

o Most tests [except for care homes] are demand led, random in nature, and requested by individuals from a wide catchment area. As such, they do not provide useful information for detecting spikes or patterns of infection in a particular geographical area, local “hot spots” or for managing outbreaks. Furthermore, test data are not completely post coded nor are they analysed at a sub-regional or local authority level, local authorities and PHE have found it difficult to get hold of these data.

  • Real time analysis and assessment of infection

o The Government proposes to establish a Joint Biosecurity Centre with an independent analytical function which will

o a) provide real time analysis and assessment of infection outbreaks at a community level and collect a wide range of data to build a picture of COVID-19 infection rates across the country – from testing, environmental and workplace data to local infrastructure testing (e.g. swab tests)

o b) have a response function that will advise on the overall prevalence of COVID-19, identify specific actions to address local spikes in infections, in partnership with local agencies and guide local actions through a clear set of protocols based on the best scientific understanding of COVID-19, and what effective local actions look like.

o We welcome the commitment to ensure that the Joint Biosecurity Centre [JBC] works closely with local partners. We would like some input into the design of the data platform, as well as discussion about rights of data contributors to access all data sets, which are held.

o We do not believe that the JBC should have a response function, which “guides local actions surges through a series of protocols. “

o Lessons from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic about over centralisation and hierarchical control – delays, rigidity, lack of autonomy to act, failure to listen and respond to local intelligence need to be learnt.

Once again, they have outsourced this analytical function to a large number of private sector organisations. The strategy states that NHS England and NHS improvement have total control over access to all NHS test data will guide and inform the COVID 19 response during lock down – but so far they have not consulted local authorities or PHE about the proposal to create this JBC or involved them in the design, access and linkage to this data store. NHS England has created difficulties and even stopped local agencies from having access to important data sets, such as 111 calls.

o Contact tracing: Contact tracing at scale can help reduce onward transmission during release from lockdown, if properly resourced by skilled people and well organised. It is unclear how their trace and track system will be integrated with the testing system.

We are concerned that the Government has

    1. outsourced the call centre to SERCO given its previous track record [breast cancer catch up]
    2. believe that one hour of training as call handler will be sufficient to run this online and phone based contact tracing system,
    3. place so much reliance on an experimental App for contact tracing.
    4. recruited insufficient skilled contact tracers to impact on the “R” number, not made sufficient effort to recruit people with experience of contact tracing e.g. EHOs or retired professionals to the clinical team.

The government states that for its test and trace system to work, several systems need to be built and successfully integrated. These include:

      • widespread swab testing with rapid turn-around time, digitally-enabled to order the test and securely receive the result certification;
      • local authority public health services to bring a valuable local dimension to testing, contact tracing and support to people who need to self-isolate;
      • automated, app-based contact-tracing through the new NHS COVID-19 app to (anonymously) alert users when they have been in close contact with someone identified as having been infected;

Conclusions

o The Testing and Tracing infrastructure which the government has commissioned has been largely been outsourced to private sector organisations and very centralised

o As such it is a “quick fix which is poorly designed and ill equipped to support the next stage of controlling this pandemic and involving the many agencies which need to play their part as lockdown are eased.

o The considerable investment which has been made in these new “ temporary “ structures should be channelled over the next 2 to 3 years into building a more robust, flexible , resilient and multilevel , public health and primary care systems , capable of responding to pandemics in the future.

Sources

Posted by Brian Fisher on behalf of the Policy Team.

 

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