Local sites where residents can obtain coronavirus tests could be coming to Greenwich borough to help ease problems in getting appointments, councillors heard last night.
Steve Whiteman, the borough’s director of public health, said the council was hoping to bring local testing sites in after residents were offered tests for Covid-19 as far away as Wales as resources were taken away from London and given to other parts of England.
While there is a drive-through site next to the O2 on Greenwich Peninsula, and across the border in Lewisham there is a walk-through site in Deptford, there are no local facilities aimed at Greenwich residents.
Whiteman said the council was also training staff to work on contact tracing as the town hall had better records on people than the government’s outsourced service.
The national Serco-Deloitte test-and-trace service, which is run by the Conservative peer Baroness Harding, came in for more angry criticism with cabinet member for health Miranda Williams telling the health and adult social care scrutiny panel that the service was “not fit for purpose”. At last week’s full council meeting, a motion was passed demanding the government hand over the struggling service to the council.
Whiteman said that the situation with testing had already started to improve. “The case had been made and that diversion [of resources] has ceased, and there has been an increase of tests happening in London boroughs,” he said. (watch here)
“I think there is an acknowledgement in the Department of Health and Social Care – and a lot of areas have been making the case for this – that we know our communities better, we are the ones following the real details of what the patterns of infections look like in our neighbourhoods and populations. And therefore having more control over where we direct the testing capacity, and some flexibility in how that can be targeted and upscaled in certain areas, alongside the work that we’re doing engaging different neighbourhoods and communities, I think would be advantageous.
“We are developing plans for local testing sites in the borough, that we would have more control over. We’re also picking up aspects of the contact tracing programme, particularly where the national service hasn’t successfully made contact with people who have newly tested positive. We’re having people trained to take on that responsibility, so we would try to find people who had tested positive and give them advice about self-isolation and interview them in relation to their contacts.
“There have been parts of the country who have been taking that over from the national service. That has helped because we have a lot of other means of knowing where people are. We have a lot of databases – council tax, housing – that the national service just doesn’t have at their disposal. Those are a couple of areas where local input can be beneficial and those are happening already.”
Asked by Conservative councillor Roger Tester if the council had the resources to take on the test-and-trace service, Williams said: “The testing process that we have seen has been utterly shambolic. When you’ve had people not being able to get a test, midwives off work because their children are at home and can’t go into school until they’ve had a test, teachers out of school because they can’t get a test, I firmly believe that this local authority could do the job a damn sight better than this government has.
“I believe we are perfectly capable of running an improved service compared with what has been outsourced to Serco and Deloitte, I really do. It is not fit for purpose, let alone the best testing in the world.”
The wide-ranging meeting discussed the council’s response to the pandemic along with local health services, and looked at how inequalities affected different residents who caught the virus, evidence which the committee chair, Middle Park and Sutcliffe councillor Mark James, called “disturbing”. Women were at greater risk in Greenwich than in other areas, the committee heard, because they live for fewer years in good health; while the 23 per cent of the population who live in deprivation were also at greater risk. (see the presentation)
Public Health England research had found that black and minority ethnic communities suffered more from the initial outbreak and locally, made up a greater proportion of people using the council’s community hub. But council officers said it was harder to get accurate figures on the impact of Covid-19 on different ethnicities as this is not recorded on death certificates.
Fiona Harris, the assistant director of public health, said it was a “missed opportunity”. “Having ethnicity on death certificates would be a great benefit,” she said. “The work that was done by Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics linked back to census data and that can only be done nationally and we don’t have access to that. In a lot of cases in terms of health data, ethnicity is missing – either because people haven’t collected it or people have declined to nominate what ethnicity they are. That is a personal choice but that make makes trying to understand the impact on different populations very difficult.” (watch here)
Asked by Thamesmead Moorings councillor Olu Babatola what lessons the council had learned, Harris said: “It’s not about what we’ve learnt, it’s what we’re continuing to learn. We know that people from BME communities don’t necessarily access services when and how they should do, and we need to understand much better why, and we need to do that work with the communities to understand that as only they can tell us.
“We are on a journey with this. It won’t happen in five minutes, we need to reach out and ask how we can support them in coming forward earlier and being more involved in preventing things from getting bad. We are continuing to learn. We won’t have got everything right but we’ll get there.”
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