Local contact tracing: Swindon

Swindon launched its local contact tracing service in late August, staffed by members of the public health team and the Live Well Swindon Community Resilience Hub. This case study is part of a series on local contact tracing.

  • Local contact tracing launched at the end of August
  • Run by public health and the Live Well Swindon Community Resilience Hub
  • Councillors praise the team’s “persistence and diligence” in curbing spread of virus locally

Local context

The borough of Swindon is a unitary authority in the county of Wiltshire. It is home to more than 220,000 people.

It saw rising rates of coronavirus from late summer and was placed on the Government’s Covid watchlist. But by the time the second lockdown came it has been taken off this in recognition of the work done to curb spread of the virus.

It has now been placed in tier two of the new system of regional restrictions.

What was done?

Swindon launched its local contact tracing service in late August.

It is staffed by members of the public health team and the Live Well Swindon Community Resilience Hub.

There are two supervisors and a team of nine people who have been trained. There is normally one supervisor and one contact tracer on shift at any one time, although more can be pulled in if the need arises. The service is staffed Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, although later calls can be arranged if needed.

Swindon’s Test and Trace Lead Trish Cowie said: “We make up to a maximum of three phone calls, leaving messages where we are able to, and, if there is no response, we follow that up with text messages and emails which is all done on the same day.

“If we still receive no response, a member of staff will visit the person’s home and try to speak to them face-to-face socially distanced on the door step. Once we have made contact we can then collect the information we need to complete the contact tracing process.”

The impact

In the first two months, the national team handed down 184 cases of which Swindon successfully contacted 83 per cent.

Ms Cowie is delighted with the progress. “It shows the benefit of doing this locally. During the first wave we were running the Live Well Community Resilience Hub, providing food deliveries and prescription deliveries and this meant that we were able to build up that trust – and that is something that we feel is helping us now.

“We can be there for people in a way the national team simply cannot. For example, we had a case recently where we got through to a man who was running out of food – and he could not get an online order for three days. That evening we dropped some food off to him to tide him over.”

Councillor Brian Ford, Swindon’s Cabinet Member for Adults and Health, is full of praise for what has been achieved. “The team has done an amazing job over the last few week and have really shown the benefit of having that local knowledge in trying to reach those contacts.

“The team’s persistence and diligence played an important role in getting our case rate down from its peak over the summer, helping us to come off the Government’s Covid watchlist.”

Lessons learned

Ms Cowie said setting up a system like this at such speed was always going to involve a degree of evolution and learning.

“You cannot expect to get everything right first time. We have learnt to carefully read the case notes – and try to join up some of the dots. For example, if we see a person has been called multiple times and not responded, particularly if they are elderly, it could be the case they are in hospital.

“Because of the local relationships we have we are able to check in with the wards and hospital admissions. But sometimes you have to stop and think. You also have to remember that these people could be ill and the last thing they want is to be talking to people and trying to recall things.

“You have to handle things sensitively, while still have to try to obtain the contact details. We have a big focus on a person centred and holistic conversation. We are not a call centre. We have a script but we use it to prompt us more than anything. If we can hear young children in the background, we realise that it might not be the best time to speak or if they feeling really unwell. In these instances, we would ask if there is a better time to call and arrange an appointment to call back.

“And one thing we always do is thank them at the end of the call – and explain how they are playing a vital role in containing the spread of the virus and keeping Swindon safe. People really appreciate that.”

Next steps

Ms Cowie hopes the service will keep improving. She said the introduction of the £500 support payments for isolation is helping to improve engagement with some people who have not completed their contact-tracing journey nationally.

Technical changes behind the scenes should also help. Currently the team have to download cases once a day from Public Health England’s Power BI system like all local authorities. But changes being planned mean this is likely to be able to be done in real time as and when cases are ready to be handed over.

“It could help us get to cases more quickly and reduce some of the delays that have happened at times. The daily downloads are not always available when we expect them to be,” added Ms Cowie.

Swindon has also started another pilot scheme, which will see welfare calls made to positive cases that have been traced by the national team to see if they need any local support. “It is a chance to see if they need anything and also to remind them of the need to self-isolate. This project is another way of us raising awareness of the importance of self-isolating and providing reassurance that we are here for them. If there is more than one member of the household positive, we make sure the messages get to them too. Calls are generally made between day three and seven of the person’s isolation dates.

“But we have to remember there are some people who simply will not engage. When we hear the criticism of the national system in the media, people are just hearing one side of the story – but the system will only work if the public engage with contact tracing.”

Contact details

Trish Cowie

Swindon Test and Trace Lead

Swindon Borough Council