COUNCIL chiefs have claimed St Helens is “leading the way” in developing the local offer for the government’s test and trace system.

Local authorities will be central to supporting test and trace service across England, with the government providing £300 million to councils.

NHS Test and Trace launches today – although without the contract-tracing app – which is a key component of the system.

The service is intended to prevent a second peak and will see 25,000 contact tracers track down people who have been near someone infected with coronavirus, and ask them to self-isolate for 14 days.

The infection rate in St Helens has been a particular concern over the course of the outbreak it is among the highest in England per 100,000 population, based on cumulative cases.

But on Wednesday, during St Helens Council’s first virtual cabinet meeting, chief executive Kath O’Dwyer said infections have been falling since the end of March.

“New cases of COVID in St Helens peaked in the week of the 29th of March, with 176 new cases that week,” Ms O’Dwyer said.

“Numbers have continued to fall since that time, with just 17 new the week commencing the 3rd of May this year.”

St Helens Star: Kath O'Dwyer, chief executive of St Helens CouncilKath O'Dwyer, chief executive of St Helens Council

The peak number of deaths in St Helens, based on data collated by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), was the week ending April 17.

That week, there were 34 deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

According to the latest ONS figures, 175 deaths occurred in St Helens up to May 15, but were registered up to May 23.

Of those, 92 occurred in hospital – which is lower than the 189 deaths reported by NHS England due to a delay in the deaths being registered – 76 in care homes, seven at home and one in a hospice.

While the number of deaths and infections are down, a report that accompanied a presentation at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting said the council is still in the first phase of its response, two months on.

The report says that most emergency planning in the past has been based on a short, sharp emergency response – such as caused by a bomb, terrorist activity or major accident. This then moves quickly into the recovery phase.

But due to the nature of the pandemic, the council is “very much in response mode”.

Looking ahead, the council is now planning for its “reset and recovery” phase.

Rob Huntington, the council’s new assistant chief executive, told cabinet that the test, track and trace system will be central to this moving forward.

Mr Huntington said: “That’s the agenda at the moment and will be the agenda going forward as we work through recovery and as we start bringing things back to a new normal, or a normal.

“On the 23rd April, that’s when there was the national announcement of the contact tracing service and the director of public health (Sue Forster) has been working closely with the executive director of people (Sarah O’Brien) and other specialist to make sure we understand what this means for us.

“And I think a point to raise for all members is, we’re actually leading the way in establishing our local offer, and there is a real expectation that the local offer needs to deliver.

“We’ve got a great approach that’s been developed by our director of public health and colleagues to drive that forward.

“I think the other thing that is helping is the way that we are collaborating and the collaborative approach that is taking place to ensure that we co-design this test and trace capability so that it works for our communities and the communities of St Helens.

“So, there’s a lot of activity in testing and tracing and it’s evolving regularly and daily.”

St Helens Star: Rob Huntington, St Helens Council’s assistant chief executiveRob Huntington, St Helens Council’s assistant chief executive

The council said has approached St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and North West Boroughs Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to see if it has capacity to support the local test and trace efforts.

An application has been submitted for a mobile testing unit and the council said it is submitting a request for a satellite testing site for wider public testing.

The council is also working with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to develop a local offer for care homes.

Mr Huntington said both testing and tracing and PPE will continue to be the two key challenges in the weeks and months ahead.

Data on the virus’ spread will be shared with local authorities to inform local outbreak planning, so teams understand how the virus is moving, working with national government where necessary to access the testing and tracing capabilities of the new service.

Local communities, organisations and individuals will also be encouraged to follow government guidance and assist those self-isolating in their area who need help.

This will include encouraging neighbours to offer support and identifying and working with relevant community groups.