Redeploy civil servants to trace coronavirus cases, says former UK health secretary

By on 30/03/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Jeremy Hunt: "With mass testing, accompanied by rigorous tracing of every person a COVID-19 patient has been in touch with, you can break the chain of transmission.” (Image courtesy NHS Confederation via flickr).

The UK’s former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said that civil servants should be redeployed to carry out ‘contact tracing’ in a bid to find and isolate people with coronavirus before they transmit the infection to others.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Hunt – who was the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care between 2012 and 2018 – pointed to expert opinion that the virus could come back “in wave after wave” before a vaccine is found. One way to get back to normal life in the UK as fast as possible would be to emulate countries that have heeded the advice of World Health Organization director general Dr Tedros Adhanom to “test, test, test”, he said.

As a Global Government Forum feature explained last week, countries that have introduced rigorous testing and contact-tracing policies – such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – have averted full lock-downs, while mass testing and contact-tracing is key to China’s success in avoiding corona’s spread beyond the Wuhan area.

“Mass testing can show us the way out of this crisis… with mass testing, accompanied by rigorous tracing of every person a COVID-19 patient has been in touch with, you can break the chain of transmission,” Hunt said. While there is “no magic wand that will suddenly overcome shortages in testing supply chains” he argued that improving production and testing services must be a priority.

The next challenge, he said, will be to put in place the human resource needed to carry out contact tracing. “We should be under no illusion that the contact tracing that goes alongside testing is resource intensive. Every time somebody tests positive, they need a dedicated contact tracer who works through all their previous interactions to make sure every single one is isolated until they are tested as COVID-free. Why not allocate all the local government officials in planning departments and the civil servants on non-COVID duties to this task?”

Civil servants redeployed to help process surge in welfare claims

Meanwhile, the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said it is already redeploying staff to deal with the fallout from coronavirus. Answering questions from the Work and Pensions Select Committee on Wednesday last week, the department’s permanent secretary Peter Schofield said it has redeployed 1,500 members of staff to help with the sharp rise in claims for welfare support, and plans were in place to increase this to 3,900 by the end of last week.

In total, 10,000 employees working in functional jobs such as finance and on longer-term programmes within the DWP will be brought into the Universal Credit team in the coming weeks, he added. Universal Credit is a benefit for working-age people.

As the impact of the coronavirus crisis begins to bite, with many people having lost their jobs or been unable to earn as a result of the lockdown, DWP reported that 477,000 people had applied for Universal Credit in the nine days leading up to 25 March. Schofield described the volume of people contacting the department seeking benefits as “unprecedented”.

“We made a decision that managing claims and making payments is a number one priority for DWP. Operationally we can deprioritise other things,” he said.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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