Local government can play a crucial role in coronavirus community testing
It seems implausible that a comprehensive programme would not benefit from having staff who are locally based with local knowledge and capacity., says James Murray MP | Credit: PA Images
The government may have belatedly started to realise the importance of community testing and contact tracing – but they run the risk of again being slow to realise the crucial role local government could play.
Like many others who have served in local and regional government, I am no stranger to frustration at Whitehall’s centralising instincts.
When I was Deputy Mayor for Housing in London, it was one of many frustrations that applications by councils to license rented properties in their local areas, for example, had to be individually approved by the Secretary of State. The extreme centralisation of such a local decision caused significant delays, saw decisions made that ignored the local context, and limited the ability for negotiation.
The importance of challenging this centralising bias of central government has taken on a new urgency during the Covid-19 outbreak. We heard over the weekend about the appalling failings of the government’s shielding helpline, set up as a national scheme distant from communities needing help. As Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Steve Reed said, a scheme better integrated with local support and local understanding would have helped to avoid these mistakes being made.
The clear benefits of local government being involved can be seen in the delivery of food parcels. The national food box scheme, whilst welcome, can involve items being sent out that are poorly suited to the needs of a local household. There is also no provision to flex its strict eligibility criteria – I was unable a couple of weeks ago to get a 96-year-old housebound man onto the national register.
In contrast, the food delivery scheme serving my constituents run by Ealing Council is much better suited to meeting local needs. That 96-year-old man was added to the council’s delivery list for food within hours. Another resident got the lactose-free milk they needed when a local volunteer driver from the council made a quick detour to pick some up.
This is not to say local government is always better than national government at delivering services. But the latter needs to realise when the former is better placed to do so. In the current crisis we don’t have time for mistakes, and so it should concern us that the government’s emerging plans for contact tracing envisage a system that would be run entirely nationally.
We know that effective community testing and contact tracing must be a crucial part of making sure infections are kept as low as possible in the coming months. The government may have belatedly started to realise the importance of this – but they run the risk of again being slow to realise the crucial role local government could play.
The government’s plan is for a community test, trace, and isolate system run by thousands of nationally coordinated call handlers. I was amazed to learn last week that the government had not yet asked staff at the council in Ealing or elsewhere to play a part. It seems implausible that a comprehensive programme would not benefit from having staff who are locally based with local knowledge and capacity.
We need to make sure the instinctive bias toward holding power at the centre does not delay ministers and Whitehall from making use of local government in a community testing and contact tracing programme. With every day, and every decision, having such profound consequences during this outbreak, we cannot allow this bias to go unchecked.
James Murray is the Labour MP for Ealing North a member of the health and social care select committee.