Home Health Professor Jonathan Van-Tam: North of England never squashed Covid-19 outbreak properly

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam: North of England never squashed Covid-19 outbreak properly


The North is bearing the brunt of the second coronavirus wave because it didn’t squash its first outbreak as well, England’s deputy chief medical officer today admitted.

Official data shows two thirds of UK hospitalisations from Covid-19 are in Yorkshire, the North East and North West, where swathes have been hit with new Covid-19 rules as part of Boris Johnson’s three-tier lockdown system.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam warned today the virus had ‘clearly picked up pace’ in the north ‘earlier than it did in the first wave’. 

He said this was ‘almost certainly’ because levels of the virus in the these parts ‘never dropped as far as they dropped in the summer as they did in the South’, suggesting the North came out of lockdown too soon.  

For example, figures show that on ‘super Saturday’ on July 4 – when pubs, restaurants and hairdressers were allowed to reopen after months of lockdown – cases in the North West was 72 per 100,000 people compared with 29 cases in the South East.

Numbers in the North West did dip further, dropping as low as 54 on July 12 before starting to drift upwards from late July onwards, but the figures still did not plummet to the low of 21 seen in the South East on August 2.

Professor Van-Tam’s admission that the North’s epidemic was never squashed fully raises questions about whether ministers were too gung ho about relaxing lockdown measures.  

Experts have blamed the North of England’s rapidly rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions on a number of factors unique to the region that have made it susceptible to a surge in the virus. 

The North of England is bearing the brunt of Britain's second coronavirus wave. A rise in infections among young people has now spilled over into older demographics

The North of England is bearing the brunt of Britain’s second coronavirus wave. A rise in infections among young people has now spilled over into older demographics

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England's deputy chief medical officer, said the crisis has migrated north because the North of England didn't squash its first outbreak properly

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said the crisis has migrated north because the North of England didn’t squash its first outbreak properly

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, said the the return of students to areas in the North – there are at least 60,000 students in the North East alone, as well as multiple universities in Liverpool and Manchester – could be driving up cases.

But while students may be fuelling the fire of local outbreaks, the normally resident populations also face higher risks of local outbreaks because of their living conditions, according to scientists. 

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham tweeted after the press conference: ‘I am grateful to the deputy chief medical officer for recognising this point.

‘Too many rush to blame the public in the North without understanding this.’

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, asked about Professor Van-Tam’s comments at a Westminster briefing, said: ‘We were guided by the scientific and medical advice at the time as to when we could begin to ease the local lockdown restrictions.

‘You will remember that was done in a very gradual and cautious way, and also the Prime Minister was clear at the time that it may well be possible that we would have to put on the brakes and reimpose some measures if you did see the infection rate starting to rise again.

‘I think what you can see across Europe is the second wave of this virus and that is why we have been taking action in recent days and weeks to help to limit its spread.’

It comes as the Government announced sweeping new controls in an attempt to stem the surge of infections, with Boris Johnson due to set out his his three-tier strategy in a Commons statement.

Parts of the North of England are bracing themselves for the most stringent Tier 3 controls, with Merseyside expected to have its pubs, gyms and casinos closed in a bid to suppress its infection rate.

PM plunges millions deeper into lockdown: Liverpool is set for ‘Tier Three’ curbs with pubs to be SHUT 

Boris Johnson today plunged millions of people deeper into coronavirus lockdown as he delivered a grim warning that he country is teetering on the brink again. 

Unveiling his new ‘Three Tier’ system to MPs, the PM declared that the highest restrictions will mean pubs being shut and households banned from mixing altogether. 

But insisting he had no choice but to act, Mr Johnson said he could not ‘let the virus rip’. ‘Deaths are already rising,’ he said. 

From Wednesday at 5pm, locals will only be allowed out of their areas for essential travel such as for work, education or health, and must return before the end of the day – although there are complaints the rules will only be guidance rather than legally enforced. 

Restaurants will be allowed to open, but only until 10.30pm. Where businesses are forced to shut, the Government will pay two thirds of each employee’s salary, up to a maximum of £2,100 a month. There is expected to be a £28million package to help parts of the country classed as Tier Three. 

‘Retail, schools and universities will remain open,’ Mr Johnson said. 

Liverpool is the highest profile area in the top bracket.

However, another swathe of the country faces being thrown into the Tier Two bracket, meaning bars can stay open but households cannot mix indoors. 

That includes Manchester, which was saved from the highest curbs after frantic lobbying from mayor Andy Burnham and local MPs, as well as the North East, Birmingham and Leicester.

London is not expected to be in Tier Two immediately, with Sadiq Khan and borough leaders due to have a conference call later. 

A source said Tier 2 was on the cards soon. ‘We are preparing for more measures in the very near future,’ the source said. 

Mr Johnson told MPs: ‘The number of cases has quadrupled in the last three weeks, there are now more people in hospital with Covid than when we went into lockdown on March 23 and deaths are already rising.’

It comes after the government top advisers were sent out to ‘roll the pitch’ be setting out their grim assessment of the situation.

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam and NHS medical director Stephen Powis told a briefing in Downing Street that the number of patients in hospital was now higher than before the blanket lockdown was imposed in March – and could be above the previous peak within four weeks. Nightingale hospitals in the worst affected areas are being put on high readiness to reopen. 

Professor Van-Tam also delivered a stark message that the surge in cases was a ‘nationwide phenomenon’ rather than just in the North, and was spreading from younger people to the more vulnerable old generation.

Prof Powis said the hope that the elderly could be isolated from the increase in infections was proving to be ‘wishful thinking’. 

Mr Johnson is facing fury as he finally unveils the government’s ‘traffic light’ coronavirus lockdown today – with ministers warning it could last till Christmas.

Mr Johnson held a Cobra emergency meeting this morning to finalise the plan, after a weekend of frantic talks with politicians and scientists. He will facing questions at a No10 press conference tonight.  

Speaking at the press briefing, Dr Jane Eddleston, medical lead in Greater Manchester, said the North West currently has about 40 per cent of Covid cases and 30 per cent of the region’s critical care beds are taken up with patients suffering from the disease.

Prof Van-Tam, addressing a question about a presentation slide depicting a creeping rate rise in the South, said: ‘You have worried me now that I might have presented a bipolar picture that Covid-19 is a problem in the North and not a problem in the South.

‘On the contrary, the epidemic this time has clearly picked up pace in the North of England earlier than it did in the first wave, and that almost certainly relates to the fact the disease levels in the North, and certainly in the North West, never dropped as far in the summer as they did in the South.

‘But pretty much all areas of the UK are now seeing growths in the infection rate and that extending brown map that I showed you, which is sourced from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, absolutely makes that point.

‘This is a nationwide phenomenon now that rates are changing upwards across the UK.’

Northern leaders have for weeks been claiming that the UK Government lifted the national spring lockdown restrictions with London and the South East in mind.

Experts have blamed the North of England’s rapidly rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions on a number of factors unique to the region that have made it susceptible to a surge in the virus. 

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, said the the return of students to areas in the North – there are at least 60,000 students in the North East alone, as well as multiple universities in Liverpool and Manchester – could be driving up cases.

Dr Clarke explained: ‘Merseyside and Greater Manchester, for example, are densely populated. 

‘They have relatively large student populations; we know there’s a problem at Manchester uni and, I believe, at Liverpool. Even if students as an age group aren’t generally one to be taken very ill, they can spread [the virus] to the rest of the communities.

‘Those cities [Liverpool and Manchester] have large night-time economies as well. That’s the thinking behind the 10pm curfew, that who wants to measure out two metres when you go to the pub with your friends? You forget [about social distancing] when you’re talking and socialising.’

But, he said, students aren’t entirely to blame, adding: ‘It is largely out of people’s control but students and young people get a lot of blame. There is evidence of rule-breaking but there isn’t evidence that it’s extensive enough to cause rising infections.’ 

 More than 80 universities in the UK have reported at least 5,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among students and staff.

But while students may be fuelling the fire of local outbreaks, the normally resident populations also face higher risks of local outbreaks because of their living conditions, according to scientists.   

Dr Gabriel Scally, a doctor and professor of public health at the University of Bristol, said worse-paid jobs and more cramped housing meant people were at higher risk of transmitting and catching the virus.

He explained that lower income areas have been repeatedly worst affected by the coronavirus and that the North has some of the least well-off areas in the country. 

A report by the housing ministry last year found that 19 out of 20 of the most deprived council areas in England are in the North, with almost half of neighbourhoods in Middlesbrough classed as ‘highly deprived’.

Eight of the 10 most deprived neighbourhoods in the country were all in Blackpool, the i newspaper reported, and Liverpool, Hull, Manchester and Knowsley in Merseyside were also home to some of the most deprived people in the country. 

Dr Scally, who is a member of the Independent SAGE group of scientists, said: ‘There are three key factors: the level of deprivation, secondly the level of over-crowding of domestic dwellings and, thirdly the proportion of people from BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] backgrounds.

‘Deprivation is linked to not-very-good housing and along with that goes, often, multi-generational households where small children live in the same houses as their grandparents. We know that BAME communities are much more likely to be poor and marginalised. It seems to be the coalition of all three factors together that have led to the virus becoming endemic.’

He added that people are more likely to do poorly-paid jobs and those that cannot be done from home, which makes them less likely to get tested or to self-isolate if they’re advised to do so, because they need the money. 

Because of these problems, only a functioning test and trace system which can root out cases and their sources will work as a long-term solution, Dr Scally said. Ideally, such a system would be run by local councils who know the areas they work in, rather than call handlers employed by the central Government. 

‘If we continue the way we’re going with no functioning test and trace system and a growth in numbers, I think it [a northern lockdown] is likely,’ he told MailOnline.

‘Will it work? To a certain extent but we now know that at the end of the last lockdown there were several local authorities in Greater Manchester, for example, that had endemic infections going on. It didn’t solve the problem the first time so why do we think it will the second time?’ 

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