COUNCILS have been given vital new powers which they hope will curb the spread of coronavirus across south Essex.

Up until now, local authorities only played a limited role in the Covid-19 track and trace system and focused on outbreaks in schools, care homes and businesses.

But this week, for the first time, they have been given access to the national data and the Essex and Southend Contact Tracing Service will take over all local contact tracing after 32 hours in the national trace system.

It means officers from Southend Council and Essex County Council will be tasked with knocking on the doors of people who have tested positive for coronavirus but who have not yet been contacted by the national track and trace system.

It comes as Southend recorded 154 new cases in the last seven days while 267 cases were confirmed in Basildon.

There were 134 positive cases in Castle Point and 68 in Rochford.

There will be a dedicated 20-person team based in Southend.

Trevor Harp, Southend Council cabinet member for adult social care and health, said: “Although it has taken longer than we had hoped to receive access to the national database and get this up and running locally, I am very pleased to be getting these new arrangements in place now.

“The face to face team is made of current council employees who will be on standby to do this work and go out into the community and door knock where necessary. This team will start receiving referrals this week.

“An effective test and trace system is vital as we seek to control the spread of coronavirus, and so we are pleased to be taking this action and putting this in place which will help to protect local communities.”

The Essex and Southend Contact Tracing Service (ESCTS) had previously only been responsible for dealing with cases in complex settings such as schools, businesses and care homes, but will now take on all localised contact tracing for positive coronavirus cases after 32 hours in the national test and trace system.

Since the weekend, Southend residents who have tested positive for coronavirus, but couldn’t be reached by the national contact tracers, will have received a combination of calls, a text message, an email and a letter from Provide who run the service.

The service will have 48 hours to attempt to make contact, after which point details of those that cannot be reached will passed onto Southend Council’s face to face team who will door knock where needed.

The face-to-face team will be visiting approximately five cases a day, although this may change as cases rise.

The ESCTS was given access to the national data system by Public Health England on October 19, and this went live on October 24.

Essex County Council, which covers Basildon, Castle Point and Rochford, said it would be adopting its own methods for localised tracing following the access to the data. A spokesman for County Hall said: “There is a distinct advantage to this access, in that ESCTS will receive case data of failed to follow up cases from the national team (expected after 32 hours) and we will use local methods of contact to increase the effectiveness of test and trace.

“[It] will also be able to close completed cases directly, instead of submitting data manually to the national team, thus giving a true representation of local contact tracing effectiveness locally.

“We will be monitoring performance closely in the coming weeks.”

Between May 28 and October 14,589 people who tested positive for Covid-19 in Southend were transferred to test and trace. This led to 1,155 close contacts being identified over the period – also referred to as “non-complex” cases, which could be dealt with through a call centre or online.

But just 61.9 per cent were reached – down from 64.7 per cent at the start of the scheme to September 23.

The Government’s chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance said there is “room for improvement” in the NHS Test and Trace system