By Professor Dominic Harrison: Director of Public Health Blackburn with Darwen Council

AS of Wednesday morning May 12, Blackburn with Darwen Council area has a confirmed Covid- 19 case rate of 85 per 100,000 and a positivity rate 3.9 per cent.

Both are rising fast. We have had up to 63 cases (both confirmed and ‘probable’) of Indian variants, of which many are of the Indian ‘Variant of Concern’ B1.617.2, first identified on April 21.

Taken together, both travel and variant cases comprise about 50 per cent of all cases in the Borough. Half in returned travellers and half community transmission- that is, acquired in the community without international travel.

Across the North West region, there are a growing number of cases of Indian Variants, some arising from travel and some from transmission in the community and in ‘settings based outbreaks’, most recently in colleges.

Blackburn with Darwen has not currently identified any specific ‘settings based outbreaks’ in workplaces, schools, colleges or places of worship.So what are the risks in this new situation and what are we doing about it?

There is growing evidence that the Indian number two variant may be more transmissible than the dominant UK variant. The risk of spread from a single infected case may therefore be higher and a single case may well infect more people.

There is no current evidence that if you are infected with any of the Indian variants, you will be more likely to be hospitalised or die, or that these variants will escape the current vaccinations being given across the UK. Assuming that the risk profile of this variant remains as confirmed above, we can expect a rising rate of cases - but that ‘harms’ will be very limited compared to previous waves of Covid spread.

The obvious logic of the current situation then is that if we have a more transmissible virus AND we want to open up through the lockdown lifting, we will need to maintain or strengthen our current infection control measures.

Our approach is therefore going to be measured and proportionate.

We want to maintain the freedoms from lockdown lifting in Blackburn with Darwen. We see no reason to halt or hold back on the core May 17 Lockdown lifting freedoms across the Borough.

We will however need to step up our local response-so we have launched an escalated surge testing programme.

The council will be doing more monitoring of detailed infection data and hospitalisations, more testing, more local contact tracing, more following up of those who should be self-isolating, more support for those who need help to self-isolate, more communication and engagement with communities – especially through our newly appointed Covid Community Champions- and more targeted encouragement to take up vaccines.

The advice for now is simply - stick strictly to the rules and don’t panic!

The emergence of new variants was both predicted and planned for-but we need everyone to respond to any requests we make to strengthen local infection control measures.

We will need to work closely together to shut down community transmission as fast and effectively as possible.