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By creating a network of ‘community shields’ we can stop the spread of Covid-19 – and support those in isolation

The 750,000 volunteers who have offered their services to the NHS could form the backbone of a local 'community shield', Lucas writes

4 min read

A community-based response can suppress the spread of Covid-19, provide support to patients in their own homes and give people the reassurance they need that they will be safe when the lockdown is lifted

The WHO advice from the start of this coronavirus outbreak has been crystal clear: test, test, test. Yet even a government which likes to campaign and govern through three-word slogans failed to get the message.

A testing policy was first followed then abandoned; targets were finally set but testing capacity is being wasted, and the Health Secretary claims there is a lack of demand.

Meanwhile the deputy chief medical officer has suggested that WHO advice on testing somehow doesn’t apply to Britain. If we have a different strain of Covid-19 from the rest of the world, which somehow makes us exceptional, I think we need to be told.

In the meantime, the country is facing an extended lockdown and ministers, civil servants and others haven’t yet grasped that you don’t have to choose between protecting the economy or people’s health in an exit strategy – you can do both. The First Minister of State, Dominic Raab, has set out five things we must achieve before the lockdown can be lifted. Among them, evidence that the NHS can cope, a sustained fall in the daily death rate and confidence that there will be no second peak.

It is very worrying that missing from this list was the clear advice from the WHO, that health systems must have the capacity to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact” before lockdown is lifted. 

The level of testing needs to be massively increased, as Matt Hancock has acknowledged, but on its own, it’s not enough. We also need a system to find people with the virus, isolate them quickly and trace those they have been in contact with. In other words, a community-based response allowing us to chase and damp down the inevitable outbreaks of Covid-19 which would follow a relaxing of social distancing measures.

That is what the Green Party is proposing in a report issued today calling for a network of “community shields” to both stop the spread of Covid-19 and support those in isolation because they are suffering from it.

The good news (and we have been sadly short of this over this outbreak) is that we do have the systems in place that could be brought together to make this happen. We have a nationwide, community-based public health system: we should use it now to control this public health crisis as we would with the outbreak of any other dangerous virus.

We should mobilise communities to track and contain Covid-19, building a new public health workforce based around returning medical professionals and some of the 750,000 volunteers who have offered their services to the NHS. Every local authority already has a Community Outbreak Team which could form the backbone of this new, locally-based community shield. 

They could ensure that those who were found to be suffering from Covid-19 were supported in quarantine, with daily contact via phone or app, or in person to safely conduct medical tests where necessary. Crucially, they would then trace the patient’s contacts, test them and isolate them if they are infected. 

Without a proper programme of community surveillance and contact tracing, we won’t stop the spread of coronavirus

As Professor Anthony Costello (a former director of the WHO) has said: “Without a proper programme of community surveillance and contact tracing, we won’t stop the spread of coronavirus”.

A community shield approach wouldn’t only help trace outbreaks of the virus where they occur and allow a swift response, it would also provide support to Covid-19 patients by monitoring their condition by phone and app, leaving them safely at home but not isolated. This would give people the reassurance they need to exit lockdown with confidence when the time is right.

The Government should be working to build this community shield now, but if that is not happening, local authorities could build their own shields for their local communities. 

If attempts to lift the lockdown are made before this infrastructure is in place, we are likely to see a series of further national lockdowns as cycles of the virus re-occur. So it is vital that time and resources are invested in the community shield approach – and making sure it’s done in good time, in dialogue with communities, is also how we can ensure the protection of our civil liberties.

We can suppress the spread of Covid-19 by tracking its spread, providing support to patients in their own homes and giving people the reassurance they need that they will be safe when the lockdown is lifted. 

It is a vision of hope, building on the community solidarity which has been one of the few positives of recent weeks. 


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