Test tube stock image. Picture: Pixabay.

Norfolk is one of 11 areas handpicked to play a key role in the government’s new Test and Trace service, designed to halt the spread of coronavirus and ease the country out of lockdown.

Local authorities are to receive a share of £300m funding to develop “tailored outbreak control plans” for their areas, the Department of Health and Social Care announced on Friday.

Working with district and borough councils, including West Norfolk, local NHS colleagues and Public Health England, Norfolk County Council has been selected to pilot the scheme and will be at the forefront of a localised test and trace system.

It is hoped careful monitoring of the spread of coronavirus – tracking who has it and who they have been in contact with – will allow national lockdown to be replaced by more targeted self-isolation and local restrictions.

Work is already underway to develop a tailored plan for Norfolk focusing on identifying and containing potential flare-ups in places such as housing complexes, care homes and schools.

Data on the virus’s spread will be shared with local authorities through the Joint Biosecurity Centre to inform local outbreak planning and help teams understand how the virus is moving.

The council, which will be asked to share best practice, said it was a vital step in helping residents to enjoy greater freedom.

Council leader Andrew Proctor, said: “We’re delighted that Norfolk has been chosen as a pilot for the Test and Trace service: robust, comprehensive plans to deal with local outbreaks of COVID-19 are key to allowing our residents to live their lives out of lockdown.”

Tom McCabe, chairman of Norfolk’s Strategic Co-ordination Group, said there was a lot of work to do in drawing up the plans, but they were eager to get started.

“Being a pilot is a great opportunity for Norfolk: these plans will be vital to allow our residents to return to their day- to-day lives, confident that any cases of COVID-19 will be swiftly brought under control,” he added.

The 11 authorities were chosen to represent urban and rural areas and had volunteered to help localise planning.

They will share the lessons learned with other authorities and will be “central” to supporting the national Test and Trace service, the government said.

The service, launched across England yesterday (Thursday), involves a team of around 25,000 contact tracers who have been hired to detect and trace those who may have been exposed to the virus.

The NHS COVID-19 phone app, piloted on the Isle of Wight, will be launched “in the coming weeks,” the government has said.

North West Norfolk MP James Wild said he was pleased Norfolk had been chosen as one of the lead areas for the rollout. 

“As we start to slowly leave lockdown and re-open more of the economy, the government’s energies need to be focused on the COVID-19 crisis and the recovery plan,” he said.

“That recovery plan depends on having an effective test and trace scheme in place to help keep the R rate under control. 

Under this model, if you test positive for COVID-19 then a team will identify and then trace people that you have contact with and they will need to self-isolate for 14 days. 

“A few weeks ago I raised concerns with the health minister about how this would work in West Norfolk. He confirmed that traditional track and trace would be core to the rollout, rather than the NHS app, and better suited to rural areas.

“With test and trace – alongside social distancing and washing our hands – we can move to phase two, and then hopefully look ahead to phase three and supporting our tourism businesses.”

Mr Wild on Wednesday said he had also asked Public Health England and Norfolk’s director of public health to specifically investigate West Norfolk’s coronavirus mortality figures and infection rates.

Data from the Office of National Statistics shows the death rate in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk to be the highest in the county.

The figures show there were 101 deaths in the borough compared to 58 in Breckland, 39 in Broadland, 32 in Yarmouth, 33 in North Norfolk and 31 in South Norfolk.

A group of independent West Norfolk councillors last week wrote an open letter to Mr Wild and South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss to raise the issue, questioning whether testing resources in the area had been adequate and had been “applied appropriately”.

Dr Louise Smith, Norfolk’s direct of public health, said: “We are aware of the high number of cases reported in West Norfolk and our analysts are reviewing the available data. 

“Several factors, including the age distribution of the population, and the fact the first cases in Norfolk were reported in the district, giving the virus longer to spread, may have contributed to these numbers.

“It is important to stress that the rate of COVID-19 in West Norfolk is significantly lower than the average in England when accounting for the demographics of the district.

“We are also reassured that the percentage of care home settings in West Norfolk reporting outbreaks are consistent with the average across Norfolk, showing no greater risk to care home residents than elsewhere in our county.”

See www.gov.uk for more information on how Test and Trace is expected to work.