So far the government emphasis has been on increasing testing capacity to allow key workers who are self-isolating to be tested so they can resume work if they do not have the virus. This is an important first step, albeit one that took longer than it should have to be put fully in place and a lot more capacity needs to be built into the system for it to be effective. In London, most key workers don’t have cars and initially had to find a way to get to Chessington World of Adventures or the Wembley branch of Ikea. The emphasis is now turning to home testing and we have seen home testing kits running out with 15 minutes of the website reopening. It is essential that the government expands capacity to meet the demand from key workers who are putting themselves at risk for the public by increasing both home testing and walk in test facilities.
However, if we are ever to be a step ahead in the management of this crisis, we need to be thinking about the next stage when in order for the lockdown measures to be eased we will have to implement extensive testing, contact tracing and isolating of those with the virus. According to the Covid-19 self-reporting app created by Kings College London, Westminster is estimated to have 1.5% of the population currently symptomatic with Covid-19, while neighbouring Kensington & Chelsea has dropped to only 0.9%. We still don’t know how accurate this data is, particularly how reflective it is of our BAME population that has been so badly affected by Covid-19. But numbers are dropping fast and it is not impossible that in 4 weeks time, numbers may have dropped to only 0.1% of the population being symptomatic of Covid-19, a manageable 227 people. It is imperative at this point (or earlier) that Westminster’s public health team has the resources to test everyone who is sick within 24 hours of developing symptoms, trace all their contacts for the previous 48 hours, test them, isolate those who are sick, trace all their contacts and so on. Only if this system is in place and functioning efficiently will it be possible to start easing the lockdown gradually. Public health consultants in local authorities have the expertise to manage such programs and know their local population far better than central government does and should therefore be given the resources they need to do so.
The government has promised that 18,000 people will be employed nationally to carry out contact tracing. Clearly this is not going to be enough, and if the government’s record in anything to go by it, they will be available too late. We are asking Westminster council, in partnership with the local NHS and other stakeholders, to recruit and train 200 local contact tracers so that they can trained up and ready to be deployed as soon as sufficient home testing kits become available, and numbers of people with symptomatic Covid drop to a more manageable level. Preparing now can ensure Westminster is more ready to deal with a reduction in lockdown to help bring ease the burden on our communities.
Cllr Nafsika Butler-Thalassis, Labour Group Deputy Leader and Shadow Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Public Health, said “Testing and proper contact tracing will be an essential part of easing the pressure on of lockdown when it is safer to do so. Local authorities can play a vital role in this work and it is important that Westminster is getting prepared by recruiting and training 200 contact tracers.”