An Open Letter to the Director of Public Health from Local District Councillors

Dear Ms Scott,

We would like to thank you, and the public health team, for all your valuable work leading on the emergency response to coronavirus in Gloucestershire. We know how important it is we work together during this unprecedented emergency, and we will continue to do all we can to support you and your colleagues.

As local councillors, we are proud that the communities we represent have supported public health and government guidelines exceptionally well, which has helped slow local transmission rates, and we have seen an incredible neighbourhood response to support those who have needed help during the lockdown.

Government is planning a new national system of contact tracing, as laid out in a letter written to all Directors of Public Health on 1 May, and we would also like to thank you for writing to us on 7 May with more details.

Having a robust system to ‘test, trace, isolate’, that local people feel confident in, matters a great deal to our communities. Trust helps to build compliance, and this will be particularly important as we move to a more varied and changing lockdown regime.

Contact tracing will be dependent on a new app, supplemented with phone calls carried out from a national call centre run by a private company. Recruitment for 15,000 call handlers, supported by a team of 3,000 health professionals, only began at the end of April, while news reports state there is still uncertainty as to which app will be used for national contact tracing. Therefore, we expect the national roll out of the app and the phone calls to be still some weeks away, and the system will be expected to cover the entire country.

On 10 May the Local Government Association warned that the contact tracing system was ‘at risk’ unless information was shared with councils, as they ‘are ideally placed with the skills, knowledge and experience on the ground to help the Government achieve its ambition to ramp up the level of testing and contact tracing necessary to defeat the disease.’

We have some questions regarding the new system and would like to know:
– At what level the new ‘alert’ system will operate, for example will it operate at a district, town or village level?
– Why is the centralised national system not being reinforced with trusted local knowledge and skills (e.g. why are county Public Health and district councils’ Environmental Health teams, who have expertise in tracing and tracking infectious diseases, not being used in the new system at a local level?)
– Will community support groups be involved in providing support to those who need to isolate as a result of the new contact tracing measures?
– If the national system fails to deliver, will there be a local back up plan to provide tracing and testing through existing local systems?
– Until the new system is in place, will Gloucestershire’s temporary testing site be made permanent?

Jeanelle de Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said at the start of May regarding contact tracing, “The reality is that no single organisation or agency, whether national or local, can deliver and oversee this operation alone. A collaborative approach is fundamental. The government needs to fully involve us in this.”

We really want this new system to work, but we have concerns that it is going to take a long time to implement, is too centralised, and therefore runs the real risk of failing to meet the needs of our communities. Sadly, our trust has been eroded by examples throughout this crisis where local public sector and community solutions have shown themselves often to be more effective than centralised systems that often rely on the private sector creating new arrangements from scratch. Failures in the supply of PPE, volunteering, food parcels, and remote testing centres, have all had to be supplemented by local initiatives.

Centralised solutions do not work for our small towns and rural communities without partnership on the ground. We are therefore calling for a collaborative approach to be taken in our own district. There is local expertise at the county, district and community level to meet this challenge for the sake of our own communities.

Government must provide a test, trace and isolate system in which people have confidence. If it cannot, it may be that local government and communities consider taking this work upon ourselves.

We hope it will not come to that, but we have to be ready to consider it, if the wellbeing and safety of our communities is at stake.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Doina Cornell, Stroud District Council Leader, Labour Group
Cllr Martin Whiteside, Leader, SDC Green Group
Cllr Ken Tucker, Leader, SDC Liberal Democrats

Siobhan Baillie, MP
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP
Gloucestershire County Council Leader, District and Borough Council Leaders for: Cheltenham, Cotswolds, Gloucester, Forest of Dean and Tewkesbury