I am writing as a public health physician who is increasingly concerned about the apparent failure to implement fundamental public health measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak – specifically, community contact tracing and testing – and about what seems to be one of the knock-on effects of this failure, namely the blanket closure of schools.
Tracing and testing of contacts, isolation and quarantine are the classic tools and approaches in public health to infectious diseases. According to the WHO, they have been painstakingly adopted in China in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, with a high percentage of identified close contacts completing medical observation; and they have been strongly recommended by the WHO for other countries.
In England, there are a lack of data – contact tracing appears to have been adopted only initially. According to modelling conducted by the authors of one of the papers published by the government yesterday, ‘The Efficacy of Contact Tracing for the Containment of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) (Keeling et al.) they expect that it would enable the outbreak to be contained :
“Aggregating across all individuals and under the optimistic assumption that all the contact tracing can be performed rapidly, we expect contact tracing to reduce the basic reproductive ratio from 3.11 to 0.21 – enabling the outbreak to be contained (figure 2). Rapid and effective contact tracing can therefore be highly effective in the early control of COVID-19, but places substantial demands on the local public-health authorities.”
The basic reproductive ratio, R0, is a standard epidemiological construct for understanding the epidemic potential of an infection; the higher the ratio, the more difficult it will be to control its spread. Ideally, R0 should be 0. If R0 is less than 1, an infected person will transmit the infection to less than one other person, and so the epidemic potential is critically reduced. On the basis of this modelling, if contact tracing is not being rigorously conducted now, the possibility of critically reducing the epidemic would be missed. The Keeling paper when taken together with the New York academics Shen et al critique raises serious questions about the validity of Prof Fergusson’s model (whose apocalyptic numbers were was used by the Westminster government to justify its approach.)
I am truly concerned that contact tracing, testing, quarantine and isolation have not been exhaustively carried out before taking the blanket decision to close all schools. I have sent the opposition spokespeople for health at Westminster some suggested PQs that my colleague Peter Roderick and I have drafted, which I attach.
It is important to note that many areas in Scotland and elsewhere have a low number of cases and so at this stage by taking an area approach to vigorous and meticulous contact tracing and testing it should be possible to contain the disease – in Singapore, the BBC reports that the army has been called in to help with this. This would in time, with other measures, allow local areas on a school-by-school basis to safely consider reopening – and uphold each child’s right to education.
One of the major differences in this outbreak is that the outbreak is being managed centrally rather than being coordinated centrally, with insufficient foot soldiers on the ground. In England local authorities and Directors of Public Health cannot tailor responses to the local situation and are subject to central policy decisions. My colleagues in public health in local authorities say they have received very little information. This, combined with the devastating cuts to community-based communicable disease control and the changes wrought by the HSC Act 2012 which carved out public health from health services in England and then further fragmented communicable disease control by removing it to PHE have created a perfect storm.
I urge the Scottish government immediately to institute a massive centrally-coordinated, locally-based contact tracing and testing programme; and to discuss with local authorities, health boards, trade unions, public health and communicable disease control experts, schools and colleges and universities how this tried-and-tested classic approach would, with other measures, enable the blanket school closure decision to be modified in favour of a locally-based strategy.
Scotland has been a pioneer for public health measures –it is important to reassert its expertise.