Surge testing in Ealing Council

Ealing Council was among the first wave of councils asked to do surge testing after a case of the South African variant that could not be directly linked to travel was identified.

This is part of a series of case-studies published on 16 March 2021  

  • Ealing Council rapidly set up a testing operation including managing an external  company to deliver its on-the-ground operation
  • Two teams delivered tests direct to people’s doors and returned within hours to collect them
  • A bespoke app was developed to help track and record progress
  • An appeal was made to the local community to participate in testing with extensive communication and community engagement undertaken

What was done?

Ealing Council was among the first wave of councils asked to do surge testing after a case of the South African variant that could not be directly linked to travel was identified.

The exercise started on Monday 1 February with the council aiming to test 10,000 residents within two weeks in postcodes identified by Public Health England.

In total almost 9,000 people without COVID-19 symptoms were tested. All tests completed in the borough, including for people with symptoms through local testing sites, were sent off for genomic sequencing. 

A small number of additional cases of South African variant were found, but none were linked to the surge testing area specifically. The council is now encouraging all residents across the borough to come forward for testing as part of a wider programme to drive down rates, identify people who may have a variant of concern and reduce inequalities.

How was it done?

A mobile testing unit was dispatched by the NHS Test and Trace team to the local area with council officers deployed to support the unit by managing queues, ensuring social distancing and answering resident queries.  

The council also organised a home-testing operation with two teams of 15 people split between drop-offs and collections.  Both teams used an app designed by the council which had uploaded the details of the streets and properties in the catchment area. It allowed the teams to record the number of tests dropped and the return visit status. The team also provided testing kits for local businesses, schools and sheltered housing.

Ealing Test and Trace Project Operations Manager Chrissy Leonard said: “It worked really well. We had to move quickly and our supplier, the events company that runs our asymptomatic testing centres, was ideal for this. They supplied the team and worked under our direction. We were out on the streets within two days.”

The target area, identified by PHE, sometimes split roads into two, either up the middle or half-way down. Ealing took the decision to complete streets that were affected, adding more than 400 households to the total.

This activity helped to inform our approach to a second phase of enhanced testing and a roving unit has been sent to target areas with the highest infection rates and in places where people may be less able to access testing.

As part of extensive communications and community engagement activity, a webinar was held with a panel of senior council public officers, leader of the council and regional public health representative. It was very well attended and an opportunity to address directly concerns raised by residents. The outcomes informed the communication messaging and response. Residents were overall very supportive and engaged in the programme.

What lessons learnt?

When the team on the ground first started they were split in two with 10 delivering the tests to people’s homes and then five following that up a few hours later to collect them. But that was soon changed so they all worked together, dropping the tests and then retracing their steps to collect them.

Director of Public Health Anna Bryden said: “It was a much more effective way of running the door-knocking. It enabled a more cohesive way of working with a better knowledge of what properties had been targeted and where collections needed to be made.

One issue that did crop up was that some people wanted help to carry out tests. We could not do that as we did not have trained people to help and we found we had to reassure them that is was okay if they did not get tested. We did think about whether this was something we should do, but in the end I still think it would not be the right use of resources. This is different from an outbreak control situation.

“In fact, that is one of the most important things to get clear in the communication – what the clarity of purpose is. This was being set by national government as part of an emerging programme.

“The initial government announcement led to some confusion and meant we had people seeing it as a mini lockdown for the area – services and businesses saying they could not come into the area – when really it was more about surveillance.”

Ms Bryden said there were also other issues that caused logistical problems. One involved the mobile testing unit. “We didn’t have advance notice of the size of the unit at the start and, in the end, had to ask them to open earlier because of the demand. Another problem that cropped up is that the home testing kits we were delivering had instructions to post them – they were not re-purposed for this sort of exercise and that confused some people.

“But I must say the support we received from our regional partners – at Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care – was fantastic and continues to be as we move into the next stage.”

Contact details

Anna Bryden
Director of Public Health
Ealing Council