Government must continue to provide outbreak funding for local public health teams to manage COVID-19 locally, councils in England have said.
The Local Government Association (LGA) – who represent councils in England and Wales – and the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) have warned that if outbreak funding does not continue, they may be unprepared to tackle new variants and manage COVID-19 in local schools and care homes due to the loss of staff with relevant expertise.
The Government’s Contain Outbreak Management Fund (COMF), which has provided £400m in funding to local authorities in England during the pandemic to help them reduce the spread of coronavirus and support local public health, is set to end next month and no guarantees have been made about its future.
The fund has supported local authorities to stand up surge testing for new variants, work with employers and businesses to tackle outbreaks and ensured schools and care homes could have access to testing, as well as other important steps to tackle COVID-19 in local communities.
In the wake of Government announcing its Living with COVID-19 strategy this week, which sets out plans to manage the pandemic moving forwards, councils have said that they will have to stand down important public health services if they do not receive any further local outbreak management funding.
This will not need to be at the scale seen during the pandemic but investment will be vital to retain local capacity to respond to the differential impacts of variants and outbreaks across the country, building on local knowledge and existing infrastructure
Councils have also called on the Government to introduce a long-term strategy on testing and vaccination, including how to protect high risk settings and vulnerable groups as well as support councils to address workforce gaps bought on by the pandemic, particularly in the care and public health sectors.
Cllr David Fothergill, Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said, 'We are now moving to a new phase of living with COVID-19 in our communities. Although vaccination now means many can live a more normal existence alongside the virus, it is clear that COVID-19 is not going away.
'As national systems are scaled back, it’s important that local public health teams still have the tools they need so they can respond to new variants and tackle outbreaks, particularly in higher risk settings. This won’t require the same level of funding as the Government has provided so far, but an extension of part of the COMF is vital so councils can continue this work and ensure staff with expertise in this area are retained.
'Using their local knowledge and contacts, councils have demonstrated that they are best placed to trace hard-to-reach cases whilst also tackling vaccine hesitancy in local communities. They have played a vital role in preventing the transmission of coronavirus and are keen to continue to work with UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Government as we move to this new phase of the pandemic.'
Prof. Jim McManus, ADPH President, said, 'Living safely and fairly with COVID-19 must mean charting a sensible path between the extremes of lockdowns and letting the virus rip. The role Directors of Public Health and their teams can play will be limited not by knowledge, expertise and commitment, but by resources.
'The uncertainty around the COMF means capacity is being reduced in local government leading to a loss of experienced staff and leaving weaker capability at a local level to the detriment of local communities and the health protection system.
'A properly funded public health system, at all levels, is critical to supporting the mission of reducing health inequalities and improving health outcomes for all whether in relation to COVID-19 or health and wellbeing more broadly.'
In other news, health and social care staff have thus far been omitted from those staying entitled to free testing as the remaining COVID-19 restrictions are eased in England.