By Professor Dominic Harrison, Blackburn with Darwen Council's public health director

WITH declining rates, Blackburn with Darwen has been rapidly falling down the national league table of Covid case rates as the Delta wave makes its progress across the country.

On Tuesday July 20 the borough was 93rd in the national league table. Most of Lancashire had declining rate of growth of cases with Burnley also showing an actual reduction in cases alongside Blackburn with Darwen.

As of last weekend, the national weekly case rate growth was up about 30 per cent on the previous week but Pennine Lancashire was showing an observed rate of growth much lower than that.

Rates fluctuate, but as of 8am July 20 there were 45 Covid inpatients in the care of the East Lancashire Health Trust -it had been as high as 62 since April in this latest Delta wave. 17 of those patients were from Blackburn with Darwen.

Of all admissions, about 65 per cent are white British and 35 per cent from ethnic minority heritage communities. Of the overall Covid admissions for Blackburn with Darwen, 11 out of 17 cases had had no vaccination –although most could have been vaccinated.

The current high pressure on the East Lancashire Hospitals Trust this week is ‘systemic’ rather than just related to Covid. It is due to four principal factors: a high level of clinical recovery work – particularly for cancer treatments; the current heatwave generating unusually high admissions in people with long-term chronic illness; continuing high (but manageable) level of Covid admissions and high rates of staff absences caused by staff having to self-isolate due to being a contact of a Covid case – particularly from household members. The trust is under pressure but coping brilliantly.

What is going to happen next is more difficult to predict. During this week, Blackburn with Darwen has seen a slight uptick in cases. We expected this. It is probably an effect of greater social mixing during the Euro football finals. It should continue to fall after this spike, but – along with every other local authority area in England - we will now see significant upwards pressure on case rates as a result of moving to Step Four of lockdown lifting on the July 19. Just how rapidly case rates will rise is going to depend on how far we all stick to sensible infection control measures such as continuing with facemask wearing in enclosed public space, whilst exercising our new freedoms.

One interesting observation from our local data (and some of the national) is that in the last few weeks it has been the wealthiest 10 to 20 per cent of the population that have had the highest rates – whereas before it was mostly the least wealthy 20 per cent. I think this may be because everyone is now out and about more, not just those in frontline roles who were unable to lockdown.

This factor has had a big impact on the cumulative case rate in Pennine Lancashire over the pandemic with only about 20 per cent of our populations able to work from home in 2020- whereas in areas like Richmond-on-Thames it was 71 per cent. Wealthier areas are now ‘catching up’ on the risk exposure other areas had been exposed to for the last 16 months. Previously less affected areas are now seeing the delta wave rising to rates we have never seen in Pennine Lancashire – some in the North East now at over 1,200 per 100,000.

So, as the transmission risks in the rest of the country catch up over this summer, it is possible that Pennine Lancashire may be able to step out of the national limelight as an area with the highest national case rates- but this will depend on us all making sensible choices about infection control.