Column with Prof Dominic Harrison, public health director for Blackburn with Darwen Council

AT the press conference on the January 4, the government announced it would continue with Plan B with the addition of extra daily lateral flow testing for about 100,000 ‘critical infrastructure’ workers in selected workplaces.

The government in England will not take any further Covid protection and support measures to reduce transmission similar to those already in place in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It will not move to any lockdown. It will move to strengthen capacity in the NHS to respond to the current Omicron surge, for instance through military support and extra ‘Nightingale beds’ in selected hospitals.

The Prime Minister did warn that some hospitals may be ‘temporarily overwhelmed’ in the coming weeks.

The national response in England seems to be to ‘detect and manage’ the surge in Covid cases whereas the other UK countries are more focused on ‘predicting and preventing’ high case rates, allowing more of the population to achieve immunity protection through booster jabs. This difference in approach has now left England with a much higher Omicron case rate as we enter 2022. On December 31, ONS reported that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all had a rate of about one in 40 citizens infected with Covid, but in England, the percentage of people testing positive continued to generate a much higher rate. An estimated 2,024,700 people in England had coronavirus on December 31, equating to around one in 25 people.

The increased Omicron case rate for England has now left Lancashire local authority areas with some of their highest Covid case rates in the whole pandemic, some hospitals having to call an internal ‘Critical Incident’ and many workplaces suffering economic harm through staff absences.

Up to December 26 Covid case rates had increased rapidly in all 14 Lancashire authority areas, most by over 100 per cent. All rates are now well over 1,000 per 100,000 – three to four times their early autumn rates. Covid hospitalisations across Lancashire increased significantly between Christmas and New Year.

In East Lancashire Hospitals Trust there were 34 Covid in-patients on the December 24. That number surged to 79 by December 31 – more than doubling in a week. Although Omicron is estimated to be between one third and one half as likely to hospitalise those infected with it when compared to Delta, we have lost the benefit of reduced severity by allowing such high case rates. If you get four times more people infected, you end up doubling the number of those in hospital.

Of the 79 Covid in patients in East Lancashire Hospitals Trust on the December 31, 21 were from Blackburn with Darwen. Of these, 10 were completely unvaccinated, eight had two doses but no booster, one in-patient had only one dose and two older in-patients had the full two doses plus booster.

The government in England seems content to allow the Omicron surge to continue to present a very high level of risk which they feel is ‘manageable’ without further measures.

As a result, the next ten weeks are going to be very difficult for us all, with high health and economic impacts through staff absences, social disruption, continued high case rates, rising hospitalisations and reduced access to non-urgent treatment and care.

The two key things to do now are get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible and, for the next eight weeks at least, limit your social contacts.