Lancashire residents who test positive for coronavirus are set to be tracked down by new local case tracers from their own district – if national efforts to contact them are not successful within 24 hours of their diagnosis.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that so-called “case completion” arrangements were due to start in Pendle today, before being rolled out in phases across the rest of the county – with Preston, Burnley and Hyndburn introducing similar arrangements over the next fortnight.

It will mean infected individuals are either phoned or visited by a team from their local city or borough council.

Lancashire’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, said figures show that around 1 in 4 Covid-positive cases across the county as a whole are not spoken to by national contact tracers within a day of their test results becoming available.

The LDRS understands that the ultimate aim is for Lancashire to take on responsibility for all tracking and tracing from the outset, bypassing the national system altogether.

This would include following up all the contacts of a Covid case – whereas under the system starting this week, that responsibility will remain with the national team after local officials have extracted the information from those cases where the individual has proved elusive during the first vital 24 hours.

The standalone council area of Blackburn with Darwen became the first in Lancashire to start local case tracing earlier this month.   After just a week, the authority reported that it was finding nine out of 10 cases where national tracers had been unable to make contact within 48 hours.

However, Dr. Karunanithi said that the priority for now was to find at least nine out of ten confirmed cases.

“If it’s a local call from local services, I think people will engage better with the system.

“Councils and the local NHS know their areas well, so we can go round and knock on the door if needs be – it is so much easier with the knowledge our existing services have.

“But this is also about providing people with extra support to enable them to self-isolate, such as food parcels – and there are also [ongoing] talks about funding to help people with their self-isolation.

“So we are trying to wrap this up into one comprehensive package of support for individuals affected by the virus or quarantine,” Dr. Karunanithi explained.

However, Pendle Council’s deputy leader David Whipp said his hopes were “dashed” when he discovered that, for now at least, the district authority would only be tracing cases that have been outstanding for 24 hours – and not their contacts.

“Why aren’t we being allowed to follow things through and contact the contacts?

“Our environmental health team have made heroic efforts to get everything in place – and they regularly do this sort of tracing for things like salmonella.

“They also do what is called ‘backward tracing’ – so they go back to find out where people have picked things up from, which is known to be of benefit in these situations.

“I’m really keen to see effective local case and contact tracing in place – we’re up for it in Pendle, because we see that as a way to get on top of this,” Cllr Whipp said.

Some wards within Pendle this weekend became subject to new rules banning socialising in all settings with anybody other than those with whom you live, while in the rest of the borough mixing between households remains outlawed in homes, gardens and indoor public spaces.   

Those restrictions also continue to apply in Preston, Burnley and Hyndburn within the county council area.

Dr. Karunanithi stressed that the challenge of Lancashire’s longer-term ambition for local teams to conduct all contact tracing should not be underestimated.

“For every case, there are likely to be between seven and 10 contacts.   There have been some instances of cases having as many as 30 contacts.

“Just imagine 10 cases with 30 contacts in [somewhere like] Preston – that’s 300 people dotted around the city, which shows why we need to make sure we do contact tracing really well.

“It’s one of the central tenets of controlling the virus – so ultimately we want the whole kaboodle to be done locally, cases and contacts.”

Local teams already take on immediate responsibility for the most complex contact tracing cases, such as those involving school settings or healthcare staff – amounting to around 20 percent of the total.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown told a meeting of the full council last week that local tracing efforts would be “more efficient” than those co-ordinated at a national level.  

However, he warned that people who tested positive for Covid needed to be given help to do the right thing.

“56 percent of people nationally who are low paid or self-employed aren’t self-isolating.

They’re going back to work and putting themselves and others at risk.

“If we’re serious about tackling this pandemic, it can’t be done on the cheap – you’ve got to give incentives for people to self isolate,” said Cllr Brown.

He recently backed a call to prevent people being disadvantaged by self-isolating – either as a result of being below the income threshold for sick pay or because sick pay would be a significant drop from their normal level of income.

The new local case tracing system will be funded from a £6.2m grant from the government to pay for extra testing capacity and community engagement in Lancashire.

However, Dr. Karunanithi said it will not be enough to fully cover the cost of the additional tracing work and that more cash will be needed.

Cllr Brown also said that the new service in Preston would have to be “properly resourced”.

Parts of Blackburn were also put under the same additional restrictions as parts of Pendle this weekend – but the Darwen area is set to be moved out of partial lockdown altogether and will return to being governed by national rules from Wednesday.