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Revealed: How Suffolk’s new test-and-trace system will work

PUBLISHED: 16:30 31 August 2020 | UPDATED: 09:05 01 September 2020

Sonja Bunting heads up Suffolk's new test-and-trace team Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN/SONJA BUNTING

Sonja Bunting heads up Suffolk's new test-and-trace team Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN/SONJA BUNTING

SARAH LUCY BROWN/SONJA BUNTING

The NHS nurse in charge of Suffolk’s new test-and-trace team has asked the public not to think of them as “Big Brother” as she sets out her action plan to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Sonja Bunting, from Ipswich, is urging people to answer the phone when contact tracers call, as they will now come from a more familiar, local number.

Soon, she will have a new team of contact tracers able to use their knowledge of the area to reach more contacts of positive coronavirus cases.

Earlier this month, we revealed around 40% of contacts in Suffolk were not being followed up by the national NHS test-and-trace system, prompting the county to set up its own.

Sonja’s new team aims to plug the gaps left by the national system, but it will continue to work closely with the NHS service and pick up the cases national tracers have been unable to reach.

“I think it’s important that the two teams need to work together, very closely, but I also think it’s very important this becomes a very localised project,” she said.

“Nationally, I don’t feel we were getting the responses we needed, but I’m hoping local number, local knowledge.

She added: “We need to get across to people that we are human, we are nurses, we’re not here to be Big Brother, we are trying to help Suffolk and contain the spread of the virus.”

MORE: Suffolk plans own test-and-trace system – as figures reveal dozens of contacts are not followed up

The Government has previously defended the national system’s record, saying it has reached hundreds of thousands of people, with a spokeswoman adding “local action to tackle outbreaks and keep people safe is a crucial part of the national service”.

How will the new service work?

Contacts the national service has been unable to reach are now being transferred to Sonja’s team, who will call three times at different points in the day. If there is no response within 24 hours, the case will be risk-assessed to see if the person may be vulnerable, and tracers may be sent to the address to investigate.

Any new cases will be taken on in Suffolk, and will be followed up with three calls over a 48-hour period. If these go unanswered, tracers will knock on doors, have face-to-face conversations with vulnerable cases, and provide support packs to contacts translatable into different languages.

The new Suffolk service is also giving the option of ‘keeping in touch’, allowing the team to call contacts again to check how they are doing, and if they are managing with self-isolation.

MORE: 10 new coronavirus contact tracers to be hired in Suffolk

Stuart Keeble, Suffolk’s public health director, said more staff in his department have been cross-trained in recent weeks so that if cases spike teams are ready to respond accordingly.

“In the same sense, rather than just having hundreds of call handlers, what we want is people who can do different things, so we’re not having people just sitting there,” he added.

The national system had been criticised for letting 6,000 contact tracers go, some of whom reported only making one call a month.

Adverts went out for contact and liaison officers last week, with recruitment for the new team continuing, but some parts of the Suffolk service are already up and running.

Sonja said she hopes the new service will be more familiar to contacts and added: “I understand people have had a lot of calls already, so for someone else to be calling them, it’s annoying, I get that.

“But if people just give us five minutes to explain, then hopefully we can work together and we can get through this.”

More information on the new service can be found on the Suffolk County Council website.

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