THE Cumbrian team leading the county’s fight against coronavirus has launched its own local “test, track and trace” operation in a bid to contain outbreaks.

Though currently at an early stage, the operation has been put into action by the Cumbria Local Resilience Forum - the multi-agency organisation that is overseeing the county’s coordinated response to the pandemic.

Many experts say the strategy is the current best hope for defeating Covid-19.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised a “world-beating” test, track and trace system from next month.

Its aim is to identify who has the virus, find their contacts who are likely to be at risk, and then get them to self-isolate to contain infection even before people are symptomatic. “This system really needs to be in place to ensure we can ease the lockdown safety,” said Colin Cox, Cumbria’s Director of Public Health.

“In Cumbria, we have already started to do contact tracing; it involves [staff from] a combination of the county council, the district councils, and the NHS, all working together. It’s small scale; and involves NHS staff who are used to doing that kind of contact tracing.” The system is being used to control virus outbreaks, he said.

Officials are continuing to focus efforts on controlling the virus in Cumbria’s care homes. As of yesterday, there had been an estimated 183 Covid-19 deaths in county care homes - 91 of them confirmed, and 92 suspected. Meanwhile, over the course of the pandemic, the NHS trusts which run Cumbria’s three acute hospitals have reported 304 patient deaths.

At The Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, and West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, the number of fatalities is currently 146. Both hospitals are managed by North Cumbria Integrated Care Foundation Trust. There were no deaths reported by the trust on three days of this week.

At University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust, which runs Furness General Hospital and a hospital in Lancaster, the death toll was yesterday 158.

The trust also this week had three days with no Covid-19 deaths reported. Mr Cox said he and his colleagues have wanted to get the test, track and trace system working.

When the national scheme is operational it will merge with that, he said.

He said: “Where we have potentially complex situations, it’s important that you identify contacts and make sure they isolate quickly, you can then stop those contacts passing it on, breaking the chain of transmission; and if you can break the chain of transmission you can prevent it reaching substantial numbers.”

It was “absolutely crucial” that efforts continue to contain and eradicate outbreaks in Cumbria’s care homes; and that schools should be supported to take the right decision next month. “It’s effectively down to the schools to make that decision,” added Mr Cox.

In modern schools, with wider corridors, social distancing may well be easier, he said.

Matthew Saunders, a consultant in public health for Cumbria County Council, said: “We are in the very early stages of looking at contact tracing in Cumbria using local expertise and small experienced teams.

“We are working together across public health, the NHS, the county council and our wider Local Resilience Forum partners to establish effective contact-tracing to limit the impact of COVID-19.”

Professor John Howarth, Deputy Chief Executive at the north Cumbrian hospitals trust, pointed out that the majority of the county’s population remain vulnerable to coronavirus.

“We have come through the first wave, largely,” he said, “though there are still concerns in care homes and we still have a significant number of people in hospital who have tested positive for Covid-19.

“But the majority of the population are still vulnerable.

“A lot of us are really worried about the winter. We may get a further wave. The message is that we have to socially distance.”Hospitals staff in Cumbria have done and are doing fantastic work with Covid-19 patients, he said saving many lives.

The NHS Confederation, which represents NHS and care leaders across the UK, has warned of a potential “second wave” of infections if the system is not operation quickly. Niall Dickson, the organisation’s chief executive, welcomed Boris Johnson’s pledge for tracking and tracing.

But in a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Mr Dickson said that without a clear strategy the UK was at greater risk of a second peak of the virus. A test, track and trace strategy should have been in place sooner and if the right system was not instigated rapidly the ramifications for the NHS “could be severe”, he said.