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

THIS week, the Covid case rates across Lancashire as a whole are showing a very gradual, unsteady and uneven rise in cases.

But we are seeing in some areas a plateauing or slight fall in hospitalisations.

Blackburn with Darwen is continuing to experience lower Covid rates compared to the English average, a situation which has now been sustained from early August. The borough currently has the 80th lowest (i.e. best) Covid case rate area out of 309 local authorities in England - putting us just outside the lowest 25 per cent in England.

On Tuesday October 12 the Blackburn with Darwen case rate was at around 270 per 100,000. The England average was at around 330. Covid in-patient hospitalisations in East Lancashire Hospitals Trust during July, August and September plateaued at around 40 to 45 Covid in-patient cases per day. Over the last week it has fallen slightly and was at a three month low at 27 Covid in-patients last weekend.

This is probably a signal that we are just about matching the increased risk of rising cases with the increased protection from vaccinations. The rise in population immunity is just about managing to ‘keep pace’ with the predicted autumn rise in transmission risks, as we relax Covid control measures and more of us spend time with others in enclosed public spaces. This is good, but it would not take much to disrupt the equilibrium.

This week, the report ‘Coronavirus: lessons learned to date’ was published by the all-party Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. I gave evidence to this committee in November 2020 describing how and why the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 150,000 lives in the UK and nearly five million worldwide, had such an unequal impact on Pennine Lancashire. At over 150 pages, the report covers both successes and failings of the UK response. Successes included the UK development of vaccines, the early start to vaccine rollout, and the UK contribution to assessing successful treatments to reduce deaths in people seriously ill with Covid.

The report also says however, that central government failures in pandemic management were very significant. Many of the issues I have raised in this newspaper over the past 18 months, challenging the government’s position on the basis of local insight and experience, were independently confirmed as ‘serious failings’.

What we need to do now is to take rapid action on any of the report’s recommendations relevant for local authority areas. We need to make sure we are as prepared as we can be to save lives and protect the health and care system over what might be another difficult winter.

The Blackburn with Darwen Covid team are already trawling through the recommendations to see what more we can do on the basis of those recommendations.

The national report criticised both the eye watering national investment in what turned out to be a ‘slow, uncertain and often chaotic’ national test and trace system and the lack of financial and other support for people required to self-isolate.

Blackburn with Darwen Council has just put in place new arrangements to handle all of our own local contact tracing into the winter and to increase local support for those self-isolating - so we are ‘on it’ already!