The ability to contain coronavirus outbreaks in local areas has been put forward by ministers as the key way in which the country can begin to return to normal.
But MPs heard today how those responsible for enacting these restrictions in local government remain in the dark about what is expected of them.
Giving evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in the Commons yesterday, Sheffield's Director of Public Health Greg Fell, who is also on the board for the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH), said clarity was needed both on what local authorities were expected to do, and the powers they had to take action.
Mr Fell said: “Much is made of the term local lockdown, and the ADPH is not quite sure what the term means.
“I think we need to be really careful, the Government needs to clarify what local lockdown actually means, and in my personal view, I think it is a rather unhelpful phrase.”
He said that while public health bosses already had a variety of powers, he said: “If we get to a scenario whereby we need to close down schools in Sheffield, or close down Sheffield, I don’t think we have the powers to do that at local authority level.”
He said those powers may sit with Health Secretary Matt Hancock under the Coronavirus Act, or regional directors of public health, but he added: “By the time we get to needing to close down Sheffield, we will be in widespread community transmission again, I think we may well be in national lockdown territory by that time, so the Government actually needs to answer what does local lockdown mean and what powers are and aren’t inherent to local authorities.”
Mr Fell said communications between local and national government had improved, that “test and trace is more robust than it was a fortnight ago”, and he added: “The balance is tipping positively.”
But he said there was still work to do on making sure the data received locally was detailed enough.
He said: “Most of these directors of public health will say that they would want person-level data, street level or low-level super output area as a minimum, but probably person-level data.”
A lower layer super output area tends to contain around 1,500 people, but person-level data would allow directors of public health to pinpoint exact individuals.
Asked whether he thought he would get data on that level, Mr Fell said: “I’m not terribly hopeful, but I’m living in hope, and we’re pushing for it pretty hard in lots of places.”
He added: "It's not 'nice to know' data, this is necessary for the public health response in an emergency."
It was a view echoed by Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, who said: “The real crucial thing to make sure that we do get that granular detail because obviously in a large area, for instance, Oxfordshire, it might give a bit of a false reading if we don’t know where the clusters are.”
However Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan, who is overseeing the rollout of the Government's test and trace programme, said work has been done on getting more data to councils.
He said local dashboards have now been shared with directors of public health, and the task was to find a “good fit” between what information was needed locally.
But one of those pieces of data would not be regional R rates - the rate of coronavirus transmission.
Dr Clare Gardiner, director general of the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), said: “We certainly have no plans to provide R levels that are at a regional or local level. I think the important data that certainly Greg Fell and Cllr Hudspeth were looking for is information on specific clusters.
“And I think if we can provide information to identify outbreaks and clusters in a timely as possible way, I think that will be enormously helpful in terms of helping to contain the outbreak at the local level.”
She said the JBC would not be running at full capacity until later in the summer.
Mr Riordan said: "I'm having those conversations with local government colleagues about what might be needed.
"But I would go back to what I said before that I don't think it will ever be in dealing with this pandemic either completely over to you at a local level, or completely over to you ministers, we've got to find a way of really strengthening this local/national partnership, and making sure that we get the best out of both."