Local contact tracing: Sheffield

Sheffield’s contact tracing service went live in the middle of October. It is staffed by a team of 12 dedicated contact tracers who work seven days a week – although the hours are shorter at the weekends. This case study is part of a series on local contact tracing.

  • Sheffield has just launched its contact tracing service. 
  • The council studied systems in South Korea and the US 
  • The aim is to reach 80 per cent of the cases the national Test and Trace team have not managed to

Local context  

Sheffield is home to nearly 600,000 residents. Since lockdown lifted, the city has had above average rates of infection and in late October was placed in tier three of the new alert level system. 

The move saw pubs and bars not serving food closed along with soft play centres, adult gaming centres and betting shops. 

What was done 

Sheffield’s contact tracing service went live in the middle of October. It is staffed by a team of 12 dedicated contact tracers who work seven days a week – although the hours are shorter at the weekends. 

Data support is also provided so the team are given any extra contact details that are available from the council’s own records for the individuals that are passed on by NHS Test and Trace.  

The national team pass on the details of people who have tested positive and they have not been able to reach within 24 hours. 

While the service has only been recently launched, work had been going on for months to plan and prepare for it. Public Health Consultant Susan Hird said: “We had been thinking about this since the spring. We recognised there would come a point when local contact tracing would be needed so we thought about how we could supplement the work being done by the regional PHE tier one teams.” 

Working together, public health and the customer services team drew on international examples of contact tracing.  

Business Change Manager Rebecca Baker said: “We have used some training materials developed by Johns Hopkins University and were quite taken by the contact tracing visualisation tools used in South Korea. It is like a spider’s web, tracing who has tested positive, who their close contacts have been and where they had visited while potentially having symptoms.” 

Sheffield has incorporated that into a dashboard that has been specifically developed by the council. It means as well as submitting the data of which positive cases they have reached and their close contacts, information which is submitted into the CTAS system, the council has a richer source of data about the spread of the virus. 

The impact 

The team is dealing with around 120 cases a day. It is too early to judge the performance in terms of reaching them, although the council has set itself a target of engaging 80 per cent. 

Service Delivery Manager Corleen Bygraves-Paul said: “We are already getting a good response. People really appreciate hearing a local voice. We try to be empathetic – rather than just focussing on compulsion and the fact they have to isolate we ask what they need. 

“When lockdown happened we set up a support helpline. We work with a number of external organisations especially the voluntary sector and tapped into the NHS volunteers who can do shopping and collect medicines. We can arrange regular welfare checks and calls, just for a chat if need be. We have links to food banks, Citizen’s Advice and domestic abuse support.” 

Ms Hird added: “This is a really valuable element of the whole process. There is no point reaching someone if they then don’t isolate.” 

Lessons learned 

There have been teething problems along the way. The council has trained a number of people who then had to drop out because they were unable to combine it with their day jobs. 

Ms Bygraves-Paul said: “In lockdown, when it was not business as usual, people had more time. But as more services have been re-started the pressure on people’s time has increased. 

“In the end we took the decision to have a dedicated team that was focussed on contact tracing. There was a concern that they may have periods where there was nothing to do. That hasn’t been the case. But they work in a wider team with the support line so if quiet they can help out with that.” 

One issue that has cropped up since launch is the delay in getting the daily contact details from NHS Test and Trace. “It is meant to be at 10 but it is after 12 by the time we get it sometimes. There are calls we can make, chasing up others, but it is something we are talking to them about.” 

Delays transferring cases mean some are handed over after 72 hours rather than 24 too. 

Ms Bygraves-Paul said it is also important to remember that contact tracers need to be prepared for difficult conversations. “Our contact tracers have phoned people who have loved ones in hospital or in one case where the individual had just died. We have links to bereavement support. They are difficult discussions, which you have to be prepared for.” 

Next steps 

Now the contact tracing service is up-and-running, Sheffield is in the process of adding a door-to-door element to its offer. Community and environmental health officers are going to be responsible for this. They will be called in as and when needed, providing the service on top of their day jobs. 

The team also has access to a team of health advisers the council has recruited. These are people with clinical training, including retired nurses, who can provide expert advice for complex cases as well as doing some health promotion work. 

Ms Hird said: “One of the things we want to do is backward tracing – helping identify where people may have picked up the virus. That will allow us to spot outbreaks early. 

“There is a lot of virus around so these things do become more difficult, but it is certainly something we could do when there are lower levels of the virus.  

“We could use it to target areas – shops, restaurants and pubs for example. Our environmental health officers could look at support for businesses and compliance in these settings, while the health advisers could give some infection prevention advice.” 

Contact details 

Rebecca Baker 
Business Change Manager, Sheffield City Council