'We are going to take matters into our own hands': Sandwell implements own test and trace system as national scheme 'failing'
Sandwell has started their own test and trace system following a surge in coronavirus cases – as their health boss deemed the Government system as 'failing'.
The borough is said to be "half way to a lockdown", with Sandwell among the top 10 hotspots in the UK for coronavirus after seeing up to 90 new cases a week.
A McDonalds has recently closed in Great Bridge, Tipton, after a number of positive cases were confirmed among staff.
Speaking on BBC WM this morning, Dr Lisa McNally, Sandwell director of public health, said the authority had set up their own test and trace system – which was working well.
She highlighted concerns over the Government's system – adding that it was "failing" and wasn't reaching "four out of 10 people" in Sandwell.
Speaking to BBC WM, Dr McNally said: "We have seen 101 cases in the last week and levels are still increasing. Effective contact tracing is the only way we can separate the infected people from the non-infected people and break that chain of transmission – it is absolutely crucial.
"The national test and trace system is failing in our area to reach four out of 10 positive cases, that's a problem. We need to do it ourselves. We won't be waiting to see which four people test and trace fails to reach – as by then it is too late. We are going to be calling all positive cases as soon as we get their details and talking to them.
"It is not up to date, if you talk to my opposite number in Blackburn as well, the system is designed for affluent areas where you've got most people speaking English. It's just not working well in areas where there is a lot of diversity.
"So we are going to take matters into our own hands – because we can do this. We have a lot of staff who can speak all the various languages spoken in Sandwell and we are going to call people and find out - firstly to give them advice to make sure they know its crucial they stay home – and actually save lives. But also to ask them where they have been, have they been to a party, a wedding, a faith setting, a meeting – and of course to ask them about their place of work because we are not getting that at the moment and that is the best way to spot workplace outbreaks early and stop them escalating to something so big it effects the local community.
"I am a bit disappointed to be honest [about the language barrier]. Officially they do have systems for speaking in different languages but the feedback we have received, we have spoken to a lot about this including those who work in test and trace, it is just not set up for that. The people who maybe don't speak English so well are likely to be older members of our community and they are the people we most need to reach. Because they are the ones that are going to become severely ill when they are infected. It is really important we can reflect the community we serve.
"We have already implemented our test and trace system – we don't hang around. We were not getting data on the personal information of positive cases for quite a while and we had to really lobby for that. We started getting that last week, but we immediately deployed lots of council staff from other departments into the public health team – those who could speak Punjabi, Arabic and all other languages spoken in Sandwell and we have got it up and running.
"We did our first full day yesterday [Wednesday] and the feedback so far is that it is going really well."
Speaking about a local lockdown in Sandwell, Dr McNally said the borough was not at that stage yet – but if cases continued to increase, the Government might impose those measures.
She said: "A local lockdown would not be our call exactly, that is something the Government would decide, but it is certainly true. If our cases continue to rise, the lockdown is a possibility. We are not there yet – but it is getting that way and that's why we are doing everything we can, our staff are working around the clock to try and do what we can with community engagement and advice to businesses, testing sites, to try and get some control of the surging cases and of course we are not the only area experiencing surges like this now. We are all fighting that battle.
"There is no doubt that if cases continue to rise and they get to a level where the Government feel they need to do something more significant, then a lockdown is a possibility. That is why we have been talking to the community as openly as we can from the start of this, trying to keep people informed and engaging with them in a way that helps them protect themselves and their families."
Adding about the closure of McDonalds in Great Bridge, she said customers should not worry that they may have been infected by a member of staff.
She added: "We had another meeting with them yesterday [Wednesday] with the McDonalds people. The store is going to be closed for a couple of weeks and obviously the staff who tested positive are at home and self-isolating. McDonalds have good infection control procedures in place – so there's no risk to the public. People who have been in for a burger don't need to worry that they were infected by a member of staff.
"That discussion is ongoing but McDonalds is doing everything we ask them to and are working well with us."
In Sandwell 24 new cases were recorded on July 20, the highest daily figure since April 29 when 28 new cases were recorded.
And in the five days up to July 24 there were 81 new cases in the borough, the biggest five-day total since mid-May and a 10-fold increase on the last week in June. The borough has had 1,823 cases since the start of the pandemic.
Smethwick had 20 new cases last week – the joint highest in the West Midlands with Birmingham's Hodge Hill, while West Bromwich and parts of Wednesbury have also been particularly badly affected.
CBS Packaging shut its factory in West Bromwich last week after 49 workers tested positive for Covid-19, while health chiefs also warned of new Covid transmissions after thousands of Albion fans flouted social distancing rules while celebrating their team's promotion to the Premier League.
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