Minister admits vital coronavirus data sharing could improve after doctors say it will help save lives

A worker prepares to swab a person in a car at a drive-through testing facility.
City council worker carrying rubbish Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The business secretary appears to have admitted the government should share coronavirus data with local authorities more quickly after councils in Leicester said they were not provided with key testing results.

Following the local lockdown in Leicester, leading doctors have said giving local authorities accurate and up-to-date data on spikes in coronavirus cases could help save lives.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has implored the government to ensure that local leaders were given timely information about cases in their area to help contain the spread of the virus.

It comes after ministers faced criticism for the handling of the surge of cases in Leicester, with local authorities saying they were not given data quick enough.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, told ITV News he believes "information has been shared" but said "of course, where we're able to improve information flow then of course we must do that".

He added: "It has been a process of learning, improving, and we will continue to do that."

The BMA urged the government to share “timely, comprehensive and reliable” information to all those involved in the management of new cases at a local level.

It also called for clarity about how regional spikes will be managed in the future.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA Council, said: “The Prime Minister has talked about a ‘whack a mole’ strategy to tackle local outbreaks, but this is no use if the people leading the response on the ground – be they public health teams or local leaders – are not given the most accurate up-to-date data possible.

“This is crucial to allow swift action and to protect lives and the health service, and something that is not happening right now.

How will the local lockdown in Leicester work?

“This is all the more important given that the ‘world leading’ test and trace app is not in place, meaning local leaders and teams armed with up-to-date information will be vital in containing spread of outbreaks.”

Ahead of further lockdown restrictions being eased at the weekend in England - including the opening of pubs, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers and barbers, as well as two households being allowed to meet indoors and stay overnight - the BMA made a series of demands from the government.

These include the use of set “metric trigger points” at which action will be taken to reintroduce local and national restrictions, which would take into consideration the regional reproductive rate – known as the R rate – as well as the level of infections in communities.

It also stressed the importance of clear public health messaging that social distancing and infection control procedures should be adhered to.

Meanwhile, leading health academic Professor Sir Chris Ham urged the government to give local leaders control over NHS Test and Trace.

In an opinion piece published in The British Medical Journal, Sir Chris wrote: “A crisis on the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic requires a national response. But in a country as large and diverse as the United Kingdom, where the impact of the virus varies between areas, a national response is insufficient.

“Local leadership is also essential, drawing on the expertise of devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, local authorities, NHS bodies, and many other public sector agencies.

“A major weakness in the government’s handling of the crisis has been its failure to recognise and value local expertise.”

He said that the people who have been in contact with those confirmed to have the virus have been contacted by regional teams of Public Health England and local health protection teams.

This raises “serious questions about the value for money” of the national telephone based service, he said.

A Covid-19 testing centre set up at Highfields Community Centre in Leicester Credit: PA

“In the case of contact tracing, most of the work is now being done by regional teams in Public Health England and local health protection teams led by directors of public health employed by local authorities,” Sir Chris wrote.

“Recent statistics show that in its first three weeks of operation, NHS Test and Trace reached around 113,925 people who were in contact with those who tested positive, of whom around 90 per cent were traced by Public Health England and local health protection teams.

“The remainder—amounting to just 12,247 people—were reached by the national telephone-based service run by Serco and Sitel, which employs around 25,000 staff. This raises serious questions about value for money in the use of public resources in a contract reported to be worth up to £108 million.

“In my view, bringing these staff under the control of local authorities is overdue.”

Sir Chris, former chief executive of the King’s Fund health think tank, concluded: “Local leaders, including devolved governments and elected mayors, are much better placed than the Westminster government to engage their communities in limiting and responding to future outbreaks.

“To do so effectively, these leaders must be given control of test and trace to rectify the flaws in the Government’s ill judged design.”

What are the pillars of testing?

There are different strands in the government's testing programme with the data available from each coming under scrutiny.

Pillar One testing is for those with medical issues and critical NHS workers, with each test carried out in a hospital.

Whereas, Pillar Two covers all key workers, including NHS staff and those in the care sector, but these are carried out at drive-through centres or via home tests and the results are ascertained by commercial labs.

Authorities in Leicester only had access to Pillar One statistics until last Thursday, meaning they did not have a fully picture of the issues in the city.

Only Pillar One figures are made available to the public and despite request by local authorities, they were not permitted access to wide data.

This means the city council could not compare the number of cases in Leicester to other regions and plan accordingly.

By delaying access to key data, the council were unable to react quickly enough to the outbreak.

For the two-week period from June 13, Leicester believed it had only 80 new cases, when the actual figure was 944.