VIRUS AND VACCINE: Latest data as vaccine race intensifies
Well over 100,000 Solihull adults have had at least one Covid jab, as the race between virus and vaccine becomes more urgent.
The borough’s infection figures are yet to show the rise which is starting to cause concern in many other parts of the country – including neighbouring Birmingham.
There were still just 12 cases per 100,000 between May 18-24 and the council’s latest data summary shows the virus as being “suppressed” – three or fewer cases in a 14-day period – in eight out of 17 wards.
However, some scientists warn that a more infectious variant, which arrived from India in April, is driving a nationwide increase which could lead to a third wave.
Cllr Ian Courts, leader of Solihull Council, has once again sounded a note of caution despite the troubling trends elsewhere not having been detected locally.
“We have a low number of cases in the borough, but we only have to look at other parts of the UK to see how easy it is for the new variants to spread, and for things to change rapidly,” he said.
This echoes a similar warning last summer, when Solihull went from having the lowest rates in the West Midlands to one of the most rapid rises in the country in a matter of weeks.
Public health officers will continue to keep a close eye on if the recent reopening of pubs and other leisure venues, and greater freedom to mix indoors, have any bearing on local rates.
Uptake of the vaccine has been very high in Solihull, climbing to around 115,000 adults having had at least one dose in the latest figures.
The recent focus has been those in their 30s, with more than half in that age group – 13,000 people in total – having received their first dose according to the latest data.
But there is a renewed push for those residents who are eligible, but are yet to accept, to take up the offer.
It is also important that people don’t neglect to get their second dose, as data suggests that the double vaccine significantly ups the protection against the new variant.
A single dose is just 33 per cent effective in preventing symptomatic disease, but this rises to 88 per cent (Pfizer) and 60 per cent (AstraZeneca) two weeks after the second injection.
Protection against serious illness is believed to be higher, although the fear is that there are still enough gaps in coverage for a severe surge to trigger another significant influx in hospitalisations.
In fact modelling by Warwick University warned that a variant which is 40 per cent more transmissible could eventually lead to 6,000 daily admissions nationwide – actually eclipsing the pressures the NHS faced at the start of the year.
Will the final unlocking be delayed?
Covid figures for Solihull still look reassuringly stable; case rates are low and weekly deaths have been either nil – or in single figures – for six weeks running.
But England’s overall infection rates took a worrying turn in the past week or so, with warnings that vaccine coverage might not yet be high enough to prevent a third wave capable of claiming thousands of live.
While easing restrictions was always expected to see some rise in cases and deaths, the fear is that many of our assumptions were based on the risk posed by the then dominant Kent variant.
The Indian strain can spread more easily – although, critically, just how much more easily is still not entirely clearly. And data also shows it is also more able to evade the vaccine.
With this in mind, some government advisors are already warning that a total unlocking in just three weeks’ time is simply too dangerous.
This piles pressure on ministers to postpone the fourth and final phase of the roadmap out of lockdown – which they always claimed would be governed by “data not dates”.
Some more critical scientists have suggested that the tests for easing restrictions on May 17 had not been met and that pressing ahead with June 21 would be another major gamble.
The fact that the Prime Minister has repeatedly talked of an “irreversible” process and that there has been renewed scrutiny of previous mistakes in the past week make any misjudgement particularly perilous.
And recent polling suggests that almost half of people would now be in favour of delaying the final phase of the roadmap.
For others however Midsummer’s Day has become deeply symbolic and the government is likely to face opposition from certain businesses and many of its own backbenchers if remaining restrictions continue.
The most drastic option would be for a blanket delay to the next stage of the roadmap, allowing more people to receive two doses and data on the dangers of the variant to become clearer.
Ministers could equally choose to keep virus hotspots under stricter measures, while allowing easing to proceed in areas, like Solihull, where infections remain low.
Although a more regional approach could be seen as a return to the tier system, which came under heavy criticism last year for being both ineffective and divisive.
A third option would be to stick to the same rules country-wide, but remove fewer of the restrictions than originally intended.
Over the weekend it was reported that the government could prioritise scrapping social distancing and the “rule of six” indoors, while keeping rules on face masks and the plea for people to work from home if they can.
Words: David Irwin, Local Democracy Reporter
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