Deputy Chief Constable Terry Woods has joined the county’s public health boss to issue a call for caution after new figures showed that Lancashire had one of the worst infection rates in the country.
Data released by Public Health England (PHE) for the final week in May revealed that the Lancashire County Council and Blackpool Council areas were two out of just over a dozen nationwide where testing had uncovered more than 26 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people during that seven-day period.
There is good news – along with the rest of the country, the number of new cases identified each day in the county council patch has been showing a general downward trend.
But DCC Woods and Lancashire County Council’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, say that the position of Lancashire in the context of the rest of the country is a cause for concern.
With further lockdown-lifting due next week, as non-essential retailers are allowed to reopen, the pair have made a plea to residents not to forget that they are still in the middle of a pandemic – and one which persists in the North West more than in most other parts of England.
“People need to be mindful that, regardless of what they see on national TV, the picture isn’t quite like that for us – it should be in the next few weeks, one hopes, but at the minute, there is a higher risk in Lancashire,” warned DCC Woods, who acts as Gold Command for the Lancashire Resilience Forum.
“I’m advising my own family to be really careful outside – and if they don’t need to make a journey, then don’t. Just treat it as being pretty hazardous outdoors.”
DCC Woods stopped short of advising Lancashire residents to take stricter measures than advised by the government, but said he was worried that people were going beyond what is currently permitted – and suggested that the consequences could ultimately be felt across the county.
“I’m seeing people not adhering to the straightforward guidance – people who are from different households sitting down in groups, having physical contact with each other, touching their faces and clearly not washing their hands.”
Stressing that he had no information about the likelihood of local lockdowns in the county, he added: “You can see from the data that if we can’t further control and reduce the outbreak in Lancashire, then if the government considers local lockdowns, areas like ours would be susceptible to fitting the criteria.
"But we have still got the opportunity to bring that virus level down by sticking to the straightforward guidance."
Dr. Karunanithi echoed that appeal, saying that “the onus is on us” to avoid a second spike in coronavirus infections.
“My key message to people is: don’t be a contact [for the spread of coronavirus].
“Everybody can play their part by following social distancing, hand-washing, staying at home as much as possible and working from home if you can – as well as not meeting in groups of more than six people outdoors.
“We could have been much worse off if it weren’t for the people of Lancashire following the advice given so far. There is no magic miracle that has happened – it’s been down to their perseverance, patience and discipline,” explained Dr. Karunanithi, who added that he had not yet seen more "granular" information which would help explain whether the PHE data from late May was the result of community transmission or outbreaks in care homes.
Earlier this week, he advised schools that they should still not reopen more widely, but he will not be issuing similar guidance to the county’s retailers as they prepare to welcome customers back – instead appealing to traders and customers to act responsibly.
“This is not a trade-off between health and the economy – they go hand in hand. We must avoid seeing the health crisis as stopping us from growing the economy – secure our health and we can secure our economy.”
Dr. Karunanithi also called on local public health officials to be given more control over the test, trace and isolate regime which the government has promoted as being key to enabling society to return some kind of normality in the absence of the eradication of the virus.
He revealed that he is “frustrated” at currently being unable to see detailed data for the swab tests carried out under the so-called pillar 2 system – those undertaken mainly on people in the community, largely outside of NHS settings. Such tests account for around two thirds of all those being done.
“My concern with test, track and trace is our ability to join the national and the local – it needs to be a partnership endeavour and we’re not quite there yet.
“Give us some swabs in our hands – and we will direct them to people. We know there are some vulnerable people – such as victims of drug and alcohol abuse – who are high-risk individuals, at risk of catching the virus and spreading it.
“We don’t have a mechanism to make those tests accessible to them – at the moment, people have to go online and book and drive to a testing site.
“We’ve also been promised pillar 2 data for some days now. All I need is a list of people who have been tested and what the results are at a local level – basic information.
“At the moment, we are basically just managing the consequences of these [national] programmes and however effective or not they are at the local level. We’re asking for much more joined-up working.”
DCC Woods went further, warning that the test, track and trace system to best protect people from localised outbreaks was not yet properly in place.
Dr. Karunanithi added that he understood that people were “fatigued” with having to live in the way in which they are at the moment – and warned that Lancashire would have to “recalibrate” itself to prepare for the long-term fallout from Covid-19.
“It’s already clear that this is going to make inequalities worse – mental health, homelessness, unemployment, long-term health effects.
“The aftermath is going to be with us for at least a generation – 10-15 years.
“There has never been a time when we have needed more to pull together as a county.”
“AS BAD AS IT GETS”
Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver said that the contrast between Lancashire and London revealed by Covid-19 data showing infection rates just 10 days ago was “stark”.
“You look at the map of England as a whole and you see Lancashire is as bad as it gets.
“The vast majority of people here are sticking to the rules and doing their very best, but there’s a significant minority who have been having gatherings where too many people are getting together.
“Even if the government has relaxed some of the lockdown rules, there are plenty of them still there – they haven’t all been done away with and we need to abide by them.
“We need people to reflect on the fact that we’re not out of this yet – Covid is still there and it’s just waiting for people to relax too much and, if they do, we could end up in a serious situation again,” County Cllr Driver warned.
The county as a whole has passed the grim milestone of more than a thousand deaths linked to coronavirus, when fatalities both in hospitals and care homes are taken into account. That figure as of Tuesday of this week stands at 1,266, 924 of which have been in hospital.
Across the entire period of the pandemic so far, the Covid cases per 100,000 people rate puts Lancashire (307) and Blackburn (279) above the national average (276), but below that for the North West (359). Blackpool is above both averages (475).
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS
Responding to the comments, the Department of Health and Social Care told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the government recently announced a £300m package for local authorities to work with NHS Test and Trace to develop local outbreak control plans, building on the work already done so far to respond to coronavirus.
Each of those plans will focus on particular community settings, such as care homes, schools and hospitals, to ensure contact tracing efforts are working in the area.
The department added that Public Health England shares data with its own local teams, which work closely with council directors of public health – with specialist teams from local authorities leading the response to any localised outbreaks.
It is understood that decisions about local lockdowns will be made at a local level, supported by the government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre.
A spokesperson said: “The Government’s priority is to protect the public and save lives. We have been working closely with our local partners, providing them with the resources and tools so that they can take swift action to deal with any new local spikes in infections.”
The health secretary Matt Hancock said last month that local directors of public health would have an “absolutely crucial” role in the decision-making process about the imposition of any local lockdowns.
However, in answer to a question from the Local Democracy Reporting Service at a Downing Street briefing last week, the transport secretary Grant Shapps indicated that there would limited local freedom to deviate from the national position on when lockdown measures are lifted in the first place.
“I think, on balance, you’ve got to have a national message – otherwise people will be confused,” Mr. Shapps said.