Surge testing in Walsall

Walsall council used mobile testing and adapted their approach to reach different groups.

This is part of a series of case-studies published on 18 March 2021.

  • Surge testing carried out in two areas, but different models used as demographics were quite different
  • Kits delivered to people’s homes, while in second collect-and-return facilities set up
  • Postcode-checker set up on council’s website so residents could check if they were in catchment areas

What was done?

Walsall carried out two surge testing exercises over separate time periods in February and into early March. The first area covered three wards in the WS2 area of Walsall and started on 1 February, while the second area was just over one ward and started 10 days later.

In total more than 15,000 tests were done – 10,000 in the first area and just over 5,000 in the second.

Around 400 positive results were found in the first area, but none were the variant of concern. The results are not yet available for the second.

Director of Public Health Stephen Gunther said: “The two areas are quite different – so we had to adapt our approach. The first area is mainly white, working class, while the second was younger more ethnically diverse.”

How was it done?

Two mobile testing units were deployed in the first area and one in the second. Teams on the ground involved the fire service and council staff with support from local councillors and community representatives. An emergency planning officer was also used to act as a runner and problem-solve.

In the first area, they delivered testing kits to people’s homes. Mr Gunther said: “It was right in the middle of the cold and icy spell and we were very concerned about people have slips and falls in the conditions so we did not want to encourage people to come out.

Our message was that the mobile testing units were there for people who were already out-and-about, but there was no need to use them if people had been staying in. We then returned later that day or the following day to collect the samples. We even had examples of households clapping the volunteers.

“But in the second area we encountered some hostility – they were worried what a positive test would mean for work. So instead we adapted the model and set up a collect-and-return service from a library, community group and mosque and pointed people towards that. They were younger and more mobile and that seemed to work better.”

Measures also had to be taken around postal testing. “A few days in we started to see post boxes full of testing kits – local residents had started ordering them despite the guidance we issued. I can understand it, but we realised we had to inform the national testing system and Royal Mail so they could make sure any positives were sent for genomic sequencing,” added Mr Gunther.

What was learnt?

Ahead of the door knocking an area profile exercise was carried out by data analysts at the council, mapping the community assets, the best routes to take and an analysis of how the population likes to communicate, including identifying local social media groups in partnership with local leaders in the community. Tests and emails were also sent.

Different areas of the council were able to liaise with schools and businesses affected so collect-and-drop could be arranged. Local members also proved invaluable, said Mr Gunther. “They really know the areas, which houses are HMOs or maisonettes. I think it is important to tap into that local knowledge.”

Mr Gunther said there were a number of other important steps taken. An emergency planning officer was brought in to act as a runner on the ground and problem-solve on top of someone leading the local logistics for delivery of the tests. The council also set up a postcode checker and put it on the website so people could check if they fell into the catchment area for the surge testing.

“The postcode checker was really important. It took the pressure off the call centre and on-call service. It has more than 70,000 hits after just a few days. We also liaised closely with one of the neighbouring councils as one of the areas bordered it.”

Mr Gunther said clear communication is also essential. “First time around we had been talking with government for a few days ahead of the announcement – so when it came we were ready for it.

“But for the second area it leaked before the formal announcement. In the end, my chief executive took the decision to confirm. We felt it would be damaging to leave a vacuum. If you are going to keep the confidence of the public you need to be transparent.

“And, actually, in the end it looks like it has acted as a reminder, made people redouble their efforts. Before the surge testing we were in the top five or six local authority areas for infection rates, but we are now falling.”