Local contact tracing: Blackpool

Blackpool’s contact tracing service went live at the start of September after only a few weeks of planning and preparation by the public health team. This case study is part of a series on local contact tracing.

  • Blackpool launched its contact tracing service in early September after just two weeks planning
  • Staff from all over the council, including from early years and leisure, have helped to staff it
  • The council is now looking to create a bank of internal and external staff who can be deployed

Local context

Blackpool is home to 140,000 people and is classed as the most deprived local authority area in England. Along with Blackburn, it is one of two unitary authorities in the county of Lancashire.

The area saw rapidly rising coronavirus cases in September and October like much of the north west. At one point there were close to 550 cases per 100,000 a week, but by early November that had dropped to around 350.

When the national lockdown was announced, Blackpool – like the rest of Lancashire – was placed in tier three of the regional alert system.

What was done

Blackpool’s contact tracing service went live at the start of September after only a few weeks of planning and preparation by the public health team.

Public Health Specialist, Nicky Dennison, the project lead for the service, said: “We could see rates were rising and felt it would be vital to have this in place before the second wave took off.

“It was a really intense few weeks getting staff trained and the system in place. Blackburn had already launched their service so that helped us in terms of structuring the service.

“We started using the national training, but then adapted it and started to deliver it locally. We were ready to go in just over two weeks.”

Staff were recruited from a range of different parts of the council, including those from enforcement, leisure services, and early years.

“They have been doing it on top of their day jobs. It has been very demanding, but we have been increasing the numbers each week.  We have trained more than 20 people so far – although there has been some attrition as people’s day jobs pulled them back.”

The service now runs seven days week from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday and from 11am to 3pm at the weekends.

The number of cases a day that get passed on by the national team varies from day to day and can be anywhere from five to around 40.

“We get more during the week so you have to have some flexibility. We normally have four people on shift, but that drops to two at weekends.”

The impact

The service has been able to reach 71 per cent of cases, according to latest performance data.

Ms Dennison said: “These are the hard to reach cases that have not self-reported online or who haven’t taken calls from the national team.

“There will always be some who do not want to cooperate, but I am really pleased with the results we have had so far.

“I think having a local number makes a difference as well as the local knowledge. People talk about the places they have been and our contact tracers know those places. It builds a rapport you do not get with a national system.”

Lessons learned

Ms Dennison said there have been challenges. “We do not always get the cases on time. They are meant to come around 10am, but some days we are waiting for hours. There was a Friday when it didn’t come until after 5pm.

“It means staff are having to wait around. It is not the most effective use of time. The data is not always clean either – you may not have complete contact details, or we can get duplicates or cases we have already dealt with. Myself and the other team leader filter these before assigning them to contact tracers. You have to be prepared for this.”

Blackpool has also taken its own approach to door-to-door contact tracers. If it cannot reach an individual for 48 hours, a letter is hand delivered informing them that the contact tracing team needs to talk to them.

This is delivered by the team that installs and services the Telehealth monitoring systems for the council. Ms Dennison said: “We did consider training a team up to do contact tracing on the doorstep, but there are a number of challenges to this in terms of resources and also practicalities in terms of managing risk.

“The letter contains information about the support grant and we also stress we can help in other ways – we still have our Corona Kindness service for things like food deliveries, medicines pick-ups and even dog-walking. We have had a good response to it.”

Next steps

Blackpool is now looking to build on what is has achieved. It is in the process of increasing its staff with a further 10 individuals due to be trained in the coming weeks. The council is also working with a local recruitment agency to build up a bank of external staff who can be brought in to do shifts. 

This should will help it to expand the hours the service runs – it is looking to staff it until 7pm during the week. Blackpool is also keen to increase its responsibilities for tracing.

Ms Dennison said: “At the moment, we are just contacting the infected individual to ask them to self-isolate and obtain their close contacts. Many of these close contacts are household members, but at the moment we cannot contact them – that is one of the reasons why households receive so many calls from Test and Trace.

“We are keen to do the contact tracing for household contacts. We are hoping to do this on a Lancashire-wide basis – we are just waiting for the final two districts in the county to get their services up-and-running before we can move on to that next stage.”

Contact details

Nicky Dennison
Public Health Specialist
Blackpool Council