Oldham chiefs explain reasons behind new spike in cases
Reporter: Charlotte Green
Date published: 29 July 2020
Deprivation and the easing of lockdown measures have contributed to an alarming spike in Covid-19 cases in Oldham that have prompted chiefs to bring back tougher restrictions
In the week leading up to July 25, confirmed incidences of the virus increased ‘dramatically’ with 119 new positive cases being recorded across the borough.
To avoid a Leicester-style local lockdown leaders are asking vulnerable people to continue shielding until August 14.
And for the next two weeks residents are being told they cannot have ‘social visitors’ to their home and must keep two metres apart from friends and family when seeing them outside.
Chiefs have revealed they are now preparing to launch door-to-door coronavirus testing in some of the hardest hit areas from next week.
And they warned that stricter measures – including around businesses operating in the borough – could be implemented if infection rates do not start to fall.
However director of public health, Katrina Stephens stressed that currently the borough had not entered into a local lockdown.
“What we’ve announced today and the measures that we’re asking people to take are extra precautions to try and avoid a local lockdown needing to be put in place in future,” she said.
“Over the last month we have seen several weeks of reducing numbers of cases despite the fact that we’ve been increasing the amount of testing that we’ve been doing.
“However unfortunately in the last week we’ve seen a really rapid increase in the number of people who are testing positive.
“What’s very clear is we now need to take some additional action to make sure we are doing our best to protect the health of everyone, to save lives and also to prevent a local lockdown being needed.”
Where are the new cases, and who is affected?
The surge in cases is mostly being seen in central and western districts, but Ms Stephens confirmed new cases were being recorded all across the borough.
However they are ‘increasingly’ seeing cases in the younger population, particularly among 20 to 40-year-olds.
The prevalence of cases in some communities may also be related to who has the best access and proximity to testing sites.
These are predominately in town centre districts which often align with areas of social deprivation, and which demographically have a higher population of people from BAME backgrounds.
Councillor Arooj Shah, cabinet member for Covid-19 recovery confirmed they had seen a rise amongst Oldham’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.
She added they understood the new guidelines will be ‘particularly tough’ for the Muslim community who were preparing to celebrate Eid on Friday.
“I have to stress this isn’t anything to do with behavioural issues, she said.
“We haven’t got any concerns about people not adhering to guidelines around Eid.”
She added that religious leaders have ‘robust’ measures in place to support people with the latest advice.
“There are no concerns around enforcement and we haven’t had a need for that so far, that’s not the approach we’re trying to use,” Coun Shah said.
Why is transmission rising now?
Oldham has not seen large scale outbreaks in locations such as meat processing plants, which have been recorded elsewhere in the country.
Ms Stephens said they also hadn’t seen a sudden surge in testing that would explain the increase of positive cases, and it appeared to be more of a ‘genuine increase’ in transmission.
The rise in infection is being attributed to people infecting each other across households rather than individual large scale social events.
Ms Stephens added: “People having extended family or friends, meeting up with them in enclosed spaces at home but potentially in other settings as well so it’s that transmission within households and within families that we are particularly seeing rather than anything connected to a specific event.”
The release of lockdown measures has also had an impact on the case numbers over the last seven days.
“I think that will inevitably be having some impact on the figures as people start to interact with others more, we will inevitably see more cases,” Ms Stephens added.
And it is thought that visits to friends and family in other higher risk areas, such as Rochdale and Blackburn and Darwen will also have led to inward transmission into Oldham.
Bosses say the impact of deprivation within communities also cannot be underestimated as a factor behind the rising infection rate.
Coun Shah said: “What we do know is that people in Oldham seem to be more vulnerable because of the impact of poverty and deprivation, and people working in higher risk roles and living in bigger households or family groups, that’s just a reality of Oldham.”
What further measures are planned to stop cases rising?
Health and council chiefs are now reviewing data on a daily basis and in a fortnight they will consider whether or not to step down any of the stricter measures.
In the meantime they will be opening up new testing sites in different parts of the borough, and carrying out door-to-door testing in areas where they are seeing ‘particularly high rates of infection’.
However currently they have confidence that locations such as leisure centres, places of worship and food and drink businesses have risk assessments and measures in place to keep people safe.
This is different to people interacting in their own homes, Ms Stephens explained.
“We know that within a home for instance people don’t have two metre marking on the floor and if people have a gathering at home it’s far more difficult to enforce those measures as much as everyone might want to,” she said.
However she added: “If we continue to see the number of cases rise then we may need to look at having to put additional measures in place with regards to businesses or leisure centres or other settings.
“I would want to feel assured that case numbers are coming down significantly and that we have got control of the situation whereby releasing those measures isn’t going to see a sudden increase again.”
Chiefs still have concerns over test and trace and the cost of self-isolation
Problems with the government’s test and trace system have been well publicised.
The amount of data being made available to public health professionals locally is now increasing.
However Ms Stephens said that in many cases they are still missing data about where people work, which has been a ‘challenge’.
“What it would be really useful for us to know more about is where people work and any key settings that they have been to in the days before they were tested, she said.
“This is an area where we could do with having much better information to allow us to get on top of this and quickly respond to cases and any settings where there might be particular risks as they occur.”
Deprivation and the easing of lockdown measures have contributed to an alarming spike in Covid-19 cases in Oldham that have prompted chiefs to bring back tougher restrictions.
They are also missing data about the numbers of people who are testing negative, which is important to understand the wider uptake of testing.
On ‘face value’ around 60pc of cases are being successfully contact-traced within Oldham.
However the requirement to self-isolate if you have been found to be in contact with a confirmed case also comes with a financial cost for many people.
This affects people who aren’t able to work from home, are on zero hours contracts or without guaranteed sick pay.
Ms Stephens added: “We know that people’s ability to self isolate isn’t equal across the population.
“That kind of financial support for people who don’t have that back up through their employment is a key risk and one where I’d like have something in place so we can offer more there.”
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