One month on from the lifting of legal Covid restrictions, there are pandemic nerves in Greater Manchester.
Case numbers soared in June and July right through to so-called ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19 – before they fell dramatically right across the region.
But in the last fortnight the numbers have plateaued – and while Covid vaccinations are working by preventing hospitalisations and deaths, a large chunk of the population is yet to have its shot in the arm.
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Ahead of winter bugs and the return to classrooms next month – and against a backdrop of high pressure in the NHS – there are concerns that people could become too complacent.
Prof Kate Ardern, director of public health at Wigan Council, says she is anxious that complacency is creeping in.
Professor Kate Ardern, Wigan Council’s director of public health
(Image: Copyright unknown)
She said: “Clearly I think what we are not seeing is a summer lull. It’s a very different scenario to how we were in summer 2020.
“In Wigan we were below that magic 50 per 100,000 people mark for much of the summer, from mid-June to the second week of September when it started to go up again – then we went into a quite significant second wave, before the third wave during winter.
“This year, rates are remaining high in Greater Manchester. We are plateauing and we have been for the last couple of weeks.
“If we start to see rates go up again, it’s difficult to reimpose things but that have to be the case if we have a big autumn/winter wave. We’ve had four waves in Greater Manchester and we are not out of the fourth because we have plateaued.
“The ability for us to reduce the risk of a fifth epidemic wave is literally in our hands. The more we can do to dampen things down, the more chance we give the vaccine programme to work.”
Prof Ardern believes that the increased social mixing being seen across England in the past month is now the driving factor behind Greater Manchester’s stubborn summer numbers.
In her borough of Wigan, the infection rate soared from 41.4 per 100,000 people on May 20, to 821.6 on July 18.
It then fell dramatically to 224.7 by August 4 – but in the latest figures available, Wigan’s infection rate has since risen to 271.2.
The latest infection rates as of yesterday (August 18)
(Image: MEN Media)
It’s a pattern that has been since throughout Greater Manchester since the Delta variant took hold – first of Bolton in May, before the rest of the region followed.
Now, Bolton has the lowest infection rate of 217.9 – although it is rising – while Salford’s falling rate is still the region’s highest at 341.8.
Prof Ardern said: “I think it’s now very hard to predict national trends, but we have got a novel set of circumstances – a high prevalence of cases and a vaccine programme that is clearly making a difference and do its job.
“But if you are double jabbed, even after the two weeks, you can still contract the virus and pass it on to others – which is why the ‘hands, face, space’ is still important.
“We do need to try and get transmission rates down.”
Wigan has one of Greater Manchester’s highest take-up rates for the Covid vaccine – but even here, there is still a long way to go before herd immunity is achieved.
In Wigan, 84% of adults have had both Covid doses, but Prof Ardern says that figure needs to be above 90% for herd immunity.
The borough has hit that mark for the over-60s – but just 54% of 30 to 39-year-olds and 30% of people aged 18 to 29 have had their two doses.
People in younger age groups, who have not had both Covid jabs, are seeing higher levels of Covid infection – and areas in the north like Greater Manchester are suffering what Prof Ardern describes as an ‘enduring transmission’.
She says younger residents do want to get the vaccine – but there is a variety of reasons why take-up can be slower, from work commitments to summer holidays away.
The time of clinics is also a factor, with younger people preferring to get their jabs in the evening or at weekends, while some young people are not registered with a GP and are reliant on pop-up clinics.
Prof Ardern added: “Some teenagers are bringing their parents along to be jabbed with them, which is great to see.
“We aren’t seeing vaccine hesitancy with young people. I think they are keen.”
One of the big concerns is that if infection rates stay high, a new Covid variant could develop – which may be more transmissible or more resistant to the vaccine.
The relaxation of self-isolation rules for close contacts who are double-jabbed people is also of concern for Prof Ardern, with reports of some people who are yet to have two vaccinations being unsure about if they still need to isolate – which they do.
Another critical issue is the pressure being faced by health and social care – particularly as the NHS tackles its backlog on non-Covid work amidst high levels of demand at A&E.
Young people have queued at pop-up jab clinics in Greater Manchester
(Image: Joel Goodman)
Prof Ardern said: “Clearly health, social care and public health are all still having to deal with Covid – but we are also responding to non-Covid issues as well.
“There are cases of staff sickness, self-isolation, and people do need to take leave – they have been at it for 18 months. It’s imperative we look after our frontline staff.”
Residents are encouraged to take their Covid jab as soon as it is available to them, and to continue with good hand hygiene and ventilation as much as possible.
It might not be a legal requirement anymore, but Prof Ardern also believes face masks indoors and socialising outdoors are also key to avoiding the chances of a fifth wave in Greater Manchester.
With immunosuppressed people and older residents who will soon have a booster jab in mind, the message being used in Wigan is to ‘be kind’ and think of others.
It is one Prof Ardern hopes will resonate across Greater Manchester.
“There are people for whom the vaccine won’t be effective,” she said.
“There are people who are immunosuppressed, there are people who are on cancer treatment.
“The vaccine protects you as an individual but it doesn’t stop you from potentially infecting someone else – so be kind to others.
“Please don’t be complacent – it has not gone away.”
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