Politics

Matt Hancock in new U-turn on coronavirus testing data


The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has bowed to pressure from councils, which demanded full access to the names and data of people in their areas who tested positive for Covid-19, and those with whom they have been in contact, in another major government U-turn.

Local authorities and public health officials have been complaining for weeks that they are being hampered in efforts to combat and prevent local outbreaks by lack of access to “named patient data” which would allow them to get straight to the sources of local outbreaks.

Now the Observer has been told that Hancock, who has insisted repeatedly that local authorities have all the information they need from the track and trace system, is set to give way and allow access to the named data as well other information already provided, such as postcodes, so long as strict data protection rules and conditions are followed.

A source close to Hancock said on Saturday night that an announcement was imminent and could come as soon as Monday.

“Subject to necessary data safeguards, we will enhance the level of this detail to ensure that local public health teams on the ground have the information they need to fight this virus,” the source said.

He added: “High quality use of data is critical to providing good public services. We’re providing more and more detailed data to local directors of public health who sign data protection agreements, to help them tackle local outbreaks and hunt down this virus.”

Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester who has been pressing for named patient data to be handed over for weeks, so that local health experts can act to protect people in workplaces and elsewhere who may have been infected, welcomed the about turn but said it should have happened much earlier.

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Andy Burnham has been pressing for named patient data to be handed over for weeks.



Andy Burnham has been pressing for named patient data to be handed over for weeks. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/Lnp/Shutterstock

He said: “It is good that the Government has finally acknowledged the truth of what we’ve been saying for weeks: that local teams need access to named patient data, ideally on a daily basis, if they are to mount the most effective effort on the ground to contain this virus. Despite claims to the contrary, even from the Despatch Box, this has not been happening.

“However, it should not have taken this long, and such a public campaign, to force them to comply with their own law. Going forward, it would be in the Government’s own best interests to involve, consult and listen to local leaders much more. The stark reality is that we are heading into a dangerous winter without a vaccine and councils will need every bit of help they can get if they are to be able to protect their communities.”

Under the new arrangements, Public Health England is expected to provide the names and data of those people who tested positive and their contacts to directors of public health working with local authorities.

The latest shift on Covid-19 – following recent U-turns on plans for a tracing app and free school meals for the poorest children – comes after an announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday that councils are to be given new powers to close shops, cancel events and shut outdoor spaces to manage local outbreaks.

Boris Johnson has described the government’s £10bn track and trace system as “world beating” but council chiefs and local directors of public health have been demanding full data access so they can work in tandem with the national track and trace system, using their local expertise, with full information at their fingertips.

Government officials said last night that Hancock had been keen on granting full access to named patient data for some time and was “very keen” on the change – despite having appeared repeatedly to deny that local authorities were been deprived of the information they needed.

Louise Jackson, portfolio holder for public health and wellbeing at Bedford Council, said the flow of data had improved but there were still important gaps.

“We are now getting full postcode-level data, but it’s still only being sent through weekly to local authorities, so it’s not real time. It’s not patient identifiable either. If Ministers are suggesting otherwise, then that is not true.”

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Councils and public health officials have been banging on Hancock’s door for weeks. The government says it is a world beating system but it has cost £10bn and yet local experts have not been getting the data they need.”



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