The Welsh Government’s “track and trace” plan to enable Wales to gradually leave lockdown

(Title Image: Welsh Government, Crown Copyright)

On April 24th the Welsh Government published its exit strategy to lay the groundwork for Wales to leave lockdown (pdf). Yesterday, the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) published further details on how the Welsh Government will “track and trace” virus cases.

At the moment Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are maintaining the “stay at home” message and the majority of the lockdown restrictions.

There are three pillars to the strategy. In terms of the specifics:

Pillar One – Evidence Gathering

The evidence needed to consider easing lockdown restrictions in Wales includes:

  • A sustained decline in Covid-19-related hospital admissions for at least 14 days.
  • An assessment that Welsh hospitals could cope with extra admissions after lockdown should the transmission rate (known as the R-number) increases beyond 1 (each infected person infecting at least 1 other person on average). Without lockdown measures, the R-number for Covid-19 is closer to 4.
  • Assurances of PPE supplies for frontline workers, as well as taking into account evidence from abroad on the impact of lifting lockdown restrictions.

Pillar Two – Deciding which restrictions can be lifted

The lockdown regulations are evaluated roughly every three weeks and the next evaluation is due w/c 1st June 2020.

To decide which parts of the lockdown can be eased, the Welsh Government will use several tests. These cover the negative and positive impact of lifting restrictions, whether it would be proportionate to the level of infection, the ability to monitor and trace infections after lockdown restrictions are eased, as well as an ability to urgently reverse any decisions if the situation changes suddenly.

Pillar Three – Public health after lockdown

This was the focus of yesterday’s announcement. Any move to ease lockdown restrictions will need to be supported by an appropriate public health response. This includes:

  • Enhanced virus surveillance – Properly monitoring virus transmission in the community and within particular at-risk groups. Also, if/when a vaccine is developed, how the vaccine works to suppress the virus.
  • Track and trace – A single national digital contact tracing system will be set up run by Public Health Wales, which will include support from local government (environmental health) and the voluntary sector on the ground in the form of contact tracing teams. Everyone showing symptoms or coming into contact with someone showing symptoms will need to report this (and their contacts) straight away for this to work. While there’s a current capacity for 5,000-tests-a-day in Wales (with just over 1,000 actually being carried out) this might need to increase to as many as 20,000-tests-a-day in Wales which will likely require an all-UK response. People may also be asked to self-isolate multiple times.
  • Learning from international experiences – This is self-explanatory. Some examples include the gradual stepping down of restrictions in Austria, regional and local restrictions in the USA and German and the use of technology to trace contacts in Singapore and South Korea.
  • Public engagement – Ensuring the public is on board with whatever the Welsh Government decide to do. The report says this requires “strong communications” but it’s been demonstrated to great effect over the last week or so that they can’t possibly expect large sections of the UK media to deliver that in Wales.
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