'Eat out' scheme muddles Covid messaging, says Leicester health chief

Nicola Davis
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA</span>
Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

The public health chief managing the Covid outbreak in Leicester has raised concerns over the government’s “eat out to help out” scheme and called for more localised testing and tracing.

Prof Ivan Browne, the director of public health at Leicester city council, said the messaging around Covid-19 needed to be clearer, given the potential for the infection rate to take off once more.

“This has not gone away, it is still here,” he said at an online event hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine.” “I have huge issues with things like ‘eat out to help out’. I understand the economic issue of it, but when I am walking up my road and I am seeing people queuing up, it is a concern.

“We have just got to get a very clear narrative of where we are, be in control, be cautious, make sure that we are not giving this virus the opportunity to pass on – because it will.”

Browne said the balance between centralised and local responses to outbreaks was improving, but more could be done locally. “It is better than it was, but we are still not there yet – we have still got a way to go.”

He likened public health directors handling local outbreaks to a group of people trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. “We all have the pieces, but unfortunately the pieces are in different areas and we are trying to work out who has got which piece.”

Browne raised concerns about testing and tracing, noting that while the details of people who test positive and cannot be reached within 48 hours by the national test-and-trace system system were now passed to local public health teams, their contacts’ details were fed back into the national system.

“Test and trace has got issues … but we are trying to improve that,” he said, adding that he was pressing for cases to be passed to local teams sooner.

He said the local approach was particularly useful as multiple members of a household could be spoken to at the same time. “The way the central system was set up was it takes everyone as an individual, which is ludicrous really,” Browne said.

Dr Lilith Whittles, an infectious disease modeller from Imperial College London, said regional outbreaks could lead to a broader second wave if not managed correctly.

She said results from a nationwide antibody study in England suggesting only 6% of the population is likely to have had Covid were concerning. “What that means is that we are nowhere near the level of population immunity that we would need to prevent the occurrence of a second wave,” she said.

In Scotland, an incident management team is investigating whether a new cluster of nine cases in Orkney is linked to an ongoing outbreak in Aberdeen, while 47 new cases have been reported in the Grampian area and a cluster of eight cases are under investigation in Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said clusters of this kind were inevitable and “should not cause undue alarm”, but said they were a “stark reminder that this virus still poses a risk to us”.

“We should become more used to hearing about several different clusters, because the virus hasn’t gone away. Covid is still present and it will spread really rapidly if it gets the opportunity,” she said.