Slow communication from Government during first Covid cases left health chief seeing stories on social media before being told

The flow of information from central government during the first Covid-19 cases a year ago was too slow and left local public health teams “forever catching up”, leaders in York have said.

Communication with members of the public was not good enough, MP Rachael Maskell said

The city was the scene of the first two confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK, exactly a year ago, which involved a student from China and his mother.

It took nearly two full days from the patients being picked up by paramedics in hazmat suits to the announcement that they had tested positive, with local authorities clueless in the interim.

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Sharon Stoltz, public health director for York, said a lack of information was causing rumours to circulate online and national reporters were being leaked information before local authorities had been told.

She said: “Locally we were totally reliant on information from Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care. Even though we were working in close partnership with them, the media were getting hold of stories before we were.”

Even after being told about the first cases, the council was initially unable to relay this information to public.

She said: “Because of the seriousness, the Department of Health and Social Care wanted to make a national announcement.”

She added that it was not a criticism of the national authorities but there were times when a lack of information put the council in a difficult position, though the communication did steadily improve during the last year.

“What is challenging is trying to manage communications. We aim to be a trusted voice locally or our citizens. We want them to be able to come to us and receive accurate information.

“Quite often news was leaked to the media or was appearing on social media and I felt as though I was reading things on social media before I was getting accurate information.

“I have to be sure I am giving verified information.

“During that time there was a lot of fear and reaction from people in the city which was filling the info gap.”

York Central MP Rachael Maskell said the messages from the government to local public health experts and the public “could have been better”.

The Labour MP said: “I think the key thing for me was that communication at that time could have been improved, with the public in particular.

“We could have probably had some wider learning about some of the measures that were taking place elsewhere [in the world], where they were controlling the virus.

“What they didn't do was share the data locally and of course the argument that I've been making throughout, is that local public health teams have insightful knowledge about people flows and their public health area, and therefore are the best people to involve from the get go, and sadly they have forever been catching up.”

The government has been contacted for a response.