Matt Hancock has been accused of not understanding his own data after telling the House of Commons that councils now know exactly who has tested positive for the virus in their area.
On Tuesday the health secretary was asked by his opposite number, Jonathan Ashworth, why public health departments were still not getting daily patient-identifiable results, instead having to wait a week to receive information that does not show who has the disease.
In response, the health secretary said: “The hon. gentleman asks about data. Patient identifiable data is available to local authorities when they sign a data protection agreement.”
However multiple sources in local public health insist this is not the case.
While they are receiving more information than they were, some of it as a consequence of signing data-sharing agreements, they told the M.E.N. they still do not know exactly who is testing positive.
They believe that lack of information - which they would usually receive where other similar diseases are concerned - is hampering their ability to track the virus on the ground and also risks breaking legislation.
Asked by the M.E.N. whether the health secretary’s statement to the House of Commons was correct, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham - who has been pushing Mr Hancock for the information - said: “No, it’s not.
“I’ve checked this with the lead director of public health, who has said to me that even if local authorities are signing the data protection agreement, they’re still not provided with the patient identifiable data.
“I think there’s a confusion here that the secretary of state has repeated and officials in his department have repeated.
“There’s a confusion between ‘patient identifiable’ data - ie name, date of birth, NHS number - and ‘individual’ pseudonymised data, to use that phrase, where you can’t immediately find out who that test relates to.”
Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester council and the region’s lead on health, agreed that the health secretary was incorrect.
“Every district in Greater Manchester has now got a data protection agreement in place,” he said of arrangements signed by public health departments in order to get other testing information on a weekly basis.
“None of them have got patient identifiable data. I think that’s it. Simple as that.”
Councils have been asking for the specific data now for weeks, arguing that without knowing exactly who has tested positive for the virus through the government’s private sector-run programme, they cannot join the necessary dots to monitor the picture in their area.
They want the information so they can immediately follow up with any social contacts or workplaces that could be affected by someone contracting the virus, but to date they only know an anonymised number of individuals who have the disease by postcode area.
That doesn’t include their name, address, date of birth or NHS number and provides no information about where they work - or, in most cases, their ethnicity. They also want the same information for people who have tested negative.
This week Andy Burnham said the absence of that data meant ministers were at risk of breaking their own legislation, which made Covid-19 a ‘notifiable’ disease in March, a view backed up not only by officials in Greater Manchester but also publicly by Blackburn’s director of public health.
Under normal circumstances the details of anyone with a notifiable disease would be made available to public health departments, they argue.
There have also been concerns that public health departments are not receiving that information from the national test and trace service either, although it is understood the officials in charge of that system are now working to provide the information.
Ten days ago the health secretary said councils did have all the data they needed, suggesting that Greater Manchester might simply need help from his own experts to interpret it.
Yesterday Andy Burnham suggested it was the health secretary himself who might need support in understanding the difference between different types of information.
“If the health secretary is having trouble understanding the data and the difference between the two things I’ve just mentioned, I’m happy to say I can make my experts available to him to take him through the data to help him understand.”