By Dominic Harrison, public health director Blackburn with Darwen Council

BLACKBURN with Darwen has high and rising rates of the variant first ‘identified in India’ referred to as B.1.617.2.

This variant may be up to 50 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant UK variant that emerged in the winter. That variant itself was about 50 per cent more transmissible than the original Wuhan virus strain.

As of Wednesday May 19, Blackburn with Darwen had a confirmed case rate of 114.9, a positivity rate of 4.4 per cent and a testing rate of 382.7. A very high percentage of our cases are of B1.617.2. Bolton has similarly rising Covid rates and variant cases. In terms of transmission and spread, Blackburn with Darwen may be a week to ten days behind Bolton.

It is now estimated that as many as 50 per cent of local authorities in England may have some B.1.617.2 cases. Not all positive PCR tests are yet being sequenced, so it is impossible to know the exact numbers and percentages.

We think the first local B.1.617.2 variant was identified in Blackburn with Darwen on April 7 in a returned traveller who was self-isolating in the borough. More seeding cases followed as other travellers returned with the variant infection during April, and some of these generated community transmission. This seeding event occurred much in the same way that the very first Covid cases were seeded across the UK from travellers returning from skiing holidays in Italy and France in February 2020.

The seeding is not the fault of the travellers. The root causes are related to systemic failures and operational weaknesses in the national measures we have in place to control the risks of international travel, including red listing and the subsequent arrangements for quarantine, self-isolation and test and trace.

Local authorities with high percentages of B1.617.2 cases are being supported by national government agencies to do all they can meet the challenge of controlling the spread. In Blackburn with Darwen, enhanced surveillance is being implemented, including genomic sequencing of all viable samples in higher risk postcodes, wastewater analysis, case mapping and the sharing of intelligence on healthcare utilisation including hospital admissions.

Our three principal strategies to control the spread of the virus are: sticking to all the current rules of this lockdown stage, surge testing and surge vaccination. In addition we are offering local guidance on enhanced communicable disease control measures, such as continued mask wearing in schools until the next lockdown lifting stage on June 21. The local authority, community, voluntary sector and faith groups along with local businesses and the local NHS are all working flat out to do all we can to check the spread of the virus. But we need all our communities, in every neighbourhood, to do the same. We particularly now need to raise testing levels and increase vaccination uptake.

This is not the first new variant of the original Wuhan strain of the virus - our home grown ‘UK Kent variant’ was. We can expect more new variants.

The challenge we have now is to find ways of effectively managing down the spread through the actions outlined above - without either locking ourselves down, or letting government think that local lockdowns are the solution. So - please stick to the rules, get tested and if eligible, get vaccinated. We can only be successful if we do this together.