Council encourages schools to contact test and trace teams first rather than DfE hotline

A council is urging schools to ignore new protocols for contacting the government’s national coronavirus helpline to report positive cases after it issued incorrect advice.

The Department for Education seized control of handling calls about school Covid-19 cases last week after some were left in “limbo” waiting three days to get health advice from local Public Health England teams.

But Essex County Council “encouraged” schools this week to instead use the Essex Contact Test and Trace Team for advice in the first instance, “rather than the DfE advice line”, if they have a positive case.

Clare Kershaw, the council’s director of education, said on Wednesday this was for “a number of reasons” including situations where the advice from DfE was wrong.

“I have heard of instances where it has been very helpful, but unfortunately where it has not been correct,” Kershaw said. “The DfE have today requested details where the advice is not correct to enable the service to improve.”

One of the other reasons, she says, is that the ECTTT will notify public health colleagues and the intelligence about the school “will be captured more quickly as well as providing more local and contextual support”.

A Schools Week investigation revealed last week how schools were waiting days for advice from local health protection teams on how to handle outbreaks.

The DfE then overhauled the current protocols for reporting positive cases, just weeks after schools opened.

The change was welcomed by unions with James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders’ union, saying it had the potential to be a “step in the right direction – as long as it works”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said the feedback they’ve had so far shows there have been a “few teething problems” but that schools have “generally found it helpful”.

He added: “We are continuing to monitor the situation. We are pleased that the department responded quickly to the concerns we raised about the difficulty experienced by schools in obtaining timely advice from local health protection teams, which were obviously overwhelmed.”

An Essex County Council spokesperson said they were “committed” to ensuring schools have access to coronavirus advice and guidance “when they need it” and have worked with the DfE on a “blended approached to support locally”.

“This includes the DfE helpline and the ECTTT. We are working hard to support schools and ensure they have the information they need during what are fast-moving and evolving circumstances.”

The DfE said it recognises that some local authorities have put more detailed local arrangements in place for schools with their local authority health protection team, and if this is working they can continue to receive support through that route.

They say any setting who has concerns about the support they receive should speak to their local authority or academy trust, who can speak to the department of PHE. DfE will then work with them to resolve any concerns and provide the support needed.