The director of public health in the UK’s latest Covid hotspot says his biggest anxiety is losing “vast swathes” of the local workforce to self isolation in the coming weeks, particularly in health and social care.
South Tyneside in the north-east of England has asked the government for help to step up its vaccination programme after recording a seven-day rolling average rate of 1,308 cases per 100,000 people, the highest in the UK.
Young unvaccinated people are most affected, with rates among 17 and 18-year-olds running at 3,954 cases per 100,000 people, and at 3,551 among 19- to 24-year-olds.
So far, just 53% of the area’s 18- to 29-year-olds have received their first vaccination, according to Tom Hall, the director of public health for South Tyneside.
He warned that the local NHS could need to cancel planned operations if known contacts of positive cases continue to have to isolate for 10 days regardless of symptoms or vaccination status.
“At the moment [the NHS is] coping but if the numbers continue to climb exponentially, then that might become a challenge,” he said. If staff shortages worsen, the NHS and social care could look at reducing “planned activity”, he cautioned. “We’re not quite there yet. But these sort of spiralling numbers end up causing [NHS managers] to look in that direction.”
He said most people with Covid in South Tyneside now had mild symptoms or were asymptomatic, with hospital admissions only “creeping up”. But the knock-on effect on the workforce was “the biggest risk” posed to society, he said.
“We’re in uncharted territory. With climbing rates like this, we don’t yet fully know what the vaccination programme will do to reduce harm to individuals in terms of sickness and early mortality … The other concern is of business continuity – keeping society going while great swathes of the population are either positive or isolating.”
The Delta variant was to blame, he said: “With earlier strains of the virus, we would sometimes see a single case in a household but the rest of the household not affected. That’s just not the case now. We’re seeing a single case in a household and then the other three, four, five family members contract the virus, so you end up with really quite rapidly escalating set of numbers.”
The government is considering allowing those who are fully vaccinated to be able to forgo self-isolation from 16 August, but Hall wants the policy brought forward for health and social care staff and other key workers.
“We really need to see the plans around that and what they’re proposing and whether those plans could be brought forward, particularly for key workforces,” he said.
Hall said South Tyneside and neighbouring local authorities in the north-east, where infection rates are all way above the national average, had asked the Department of Health and Social Care for support to step-up vaccination. “We want to make the path to getting the vaccine as simple and easy as possible,” said Hall. Vaccine supply is not the problem, he added. “It’s about delivery mechanisms and having the vaccinators and the clinics and all the rest of it up and running.”
In Bolton and other previous hotspots in the north-west of England, the government gave local authorities “enhanced support”, including extra testing within targeted areas and logistical support from the army to maximise vaccine uptake. On Friday a similar package was offered to Oxford, when it had the highest infection rates in England.