Contact tracers may soon knock on your door if they cannot contact you by phone - here’s why

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Those who have been in contact with people confirmed to have coronavirus may get a knock on their door if they can't be reached by phone.

The changes come after criticism that the national system was not tapping into local knowledge. The Labour Party said the new plans showed that the system was nowhere near “world-beating” as the Government claims.

But James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said, “Using councils’ unrivalled local knowledge and vast experience of contact tracing within local public health teams is vital in the Government’s national efforts.”

What do the changes mean?

The news comes as health officials announced plans to strengthen regional test and trace powers in England, with 200 walk-in centres planned to open across the country by October.

NHS Test and Trace will now provide local authorities across England with a dedicated team of contact tracers for local areas, in the hopes more people can be reached.

These teams will visit people at home if the dedicated national team cannot make contact with a person in a set amount of time, using data provided by NHS Test and Trace to follow up. All data from national and local teams will be fed into the same system.

As the contact tracing system becomes “more locally targeted”, NHS Test and Trace will “reduce current extra capacity and reduce the number of non-NHS call handlers” said the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC).

Are contact tracer numbers being cut?

The national contact tracing service will be cut from 18,000 to 12,000 employees on 24 August, with remaining staff deployed as part of dedicated local tracing teams.

The DHSC said staff numbers can be “quickly scaled up, or down depending on requirements.”

Baroness Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, said, “We have always been clear that NHS Test and Trace must be local by default and that we do not operate alone – we work with and through partners across the country.

“After successful trials in a small number of local areas... we are now offering this integrated localised approach to all local authorities to ensure we can reach more people in their communities.”

Will it work?

Keith Neal, emeritus professor in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said, “Visiting houses will help but there is no mention as to what they will do if they are not isolated for 10 days as they should be.”

Neal added that allowing local authorities to chase up will ensure more people are contacted, but that, while the advantage of a national system is that it can divert resources to hotspots, a more localised approach is likely to have "capacity issues" in areas where there are "many more" cases.

Justin Madders, shadow health minister, said, “It’s clear Boris Johnson’s £10 billion centralised contact tracing system is nowhere near ‘world beating’ as he claims and the system is unable to fight local outbreaks successfully.

“A truly effective system would provide all local areas with detailed data sets, ensure people have support to self-isolate if needed, and give local health officials the help and resources they need to lead contact tracing."