'Older children and young adults' behind Covid surge in Blackpool and not tourists, health boss says as Delta variant spreads rapidly

The rapidly spreading Delta variant of Covid is now behind the “vast majority” of cases in Blackpool, but it’s being driven by secondary school-aged children and young adults and not tourists heading to the seaside for a sunny staycation, the resort’s public health boss said.

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 11:23 am
Updated Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 2:11 pm

Speaking to The Gazette, Dr Arif Rajpura supported calls to vaccinate older children – and said he would start much earlier than the mooted autumn date.

But, despite a surge in cases in recent weeks, which saw the town named as one of the five worst places for new infections, he refused to hit the panic button, saying cases were low amongst the over-60s – those most at risk of getting seriously ill and dying – and had yet to translate into more inpatients at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

Only three places have recorded bigger week-on-week rises in infection rate than Blackpool, while the town now has the 14th highest community infection rate out of 315 local areas in England.

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Tourists enjoying the seafront at Blackpool on June 12, 2021 (Picture: Neil Cross)
Tourists enjoying the seafront at Blackpool on June 12, 2021 (Picture: Neil Cross)

In the seven days to June 17, there were 396 new diagnoses, giving an infection rate of 284 per 100,000 people – up from 252 diagnoses and a rate of 180.7 the week before.

It comes as Nicola Sturgeon again warned against travel to Lancashire – after last year making a plea for Scots to dodge the resort.

The First Minister banned all non-essential travel to Manchester (which has an infection rate of 360.7, higher than Blackpool’s) and Salford (340 and also higher) from Monday after pinpointing the areas as Covid hotspots, despite figures there matching rates in parts of Scotland.

And she added: “Anything travelling elsewhere in the Greater Manchester or Lancashire area, I’d ask to think carefully about whether your journey is really necessary because we do see cases rising across that region.”

But, with Blackpool enjoying a much-needed resurgence following the devastating impact of the three national lockdowns – with Scots contributing to a welcome staycation boom, Dr Rajpura said: “ It’s not tourism that’s driving infections. Most of the outbreaks and issues we have had locally have been resident areas and among resident populations.

“I think it would be unfair to blame it on tourism, to be honest.

“Our public protection team has been working very closely with the hospitality and tourism industry to get those Covid-secure arrangements in place before we opened up.

“The compliance rate has been fantastic, really, when our public protection team has been in.

"We can be assured that we have a safe tourist industry.

“If there are any lapses in any of that, our team is out and about all the time to make sure businesses continue to comply.”

“What I’d be saying to our resident population is that I think there’s a responsibility for the resident population and the tourist population that they behave in a safe way when they come to the town.

"Please come to Blackpool, but please enjoy yourselves safely. That’s the key message.”

Dr Rajpura admitted the recent hike in cases in Blackpool is “concerning”, adding: “It’s obviously the Delta variant, which is more transmissible and has arrived on our patch, but also we have opened up society,” referring to the relaxation of lockdown restrictions which had banned most gatherings and left pubs, restaurants, and leisure attractions shut.

“We can be fairly confident that the vast majority of cases are Delta variant,” he said.

“Having said that, the two other things I look at very closely are the over-60s rate and what’s happening in our hospital.

"We haven’t seen massive increases in the over-60s case rate. It has gone up a little bit but it’s not been huge. And our hospitals have very low numbers of patients in the Vic.

“That gives me some confidence we have been weakening the link between cases and hospital admissions.”

Dr Rajpura said the resort had a “pretty decent” vaccination rate, with provisional NHS data showing an estimated 92.5 per cent of over-50s have had both jabs, protecting pensioners, and said care homes have not seen a “significant impact”.

“All of that gives me a little bit of reassurance and confidence,” he said.

“Of course, I think we need to reverse the trend. I’m not happy with the fact it’s going up, and we have seen a number of outbreaks in different places and that’s driving some of our transmission.

“We need to get on top of that. I’m hoping we can start to reverse the trend in the next week or so,” through the vaccination programme being rolled-out to all adults and second jabs being given.

“We need to go down the age range and vaccinate people who are transmitting the virus at this moment in time,” Dr Rajpura said.

“It’s largely being transmitted by older school children and young adults. That’s not a surprise because they’re the ones that are probably doing the most mixing. They are out and about. They’re in school. They’re obviously going into workplaces and doing more stuff. There’s more hospitality open. All of that is probably increasing the case rates.”

A number of local schools have been forced to send groups of children and staff – known as ‘bubbles’ – into self-isolation following confirmed cases of Covid.

Last year, Dr Rajpura stressed the importance of children being in classrooms – but also said youngsters showing less known and severe symptoms of Covid, such as sore throats and tiredness, should be sent for testing.He has now called for pupils in secondary schools to be vaccinated too.

He said: “There’s a debate, isn’t there? The JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] hopefully will come out with a statement at some point shortly, which will give us an indication of the direction of travel there – whether we will be doing school kids or not in the autumn term.

“The MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] said it’s safe and effective to do school kids, so I think that would be the right thing to do.

"If the Government gives us the green light, I’d like to do it before September if we can.

"Can we actually do it during the summer? Logistically it becomes a bit more difficult because it’s easier to do when they’re in school, but if there’s a way of doing them even before then I’d been keen on us cracking on and doing that.

“School is a place where transmission can occur. I must say, Blackpool schools have done a fantastic job in putting Covid-secure arrangements in and doing everything they can to limit the spread of infection. I must commend them.”

IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN WORSE HERE

Blackpool has long topped unwanted league tables relating to obesity, smoking, and boozing.And Dr Rajpura admitted Covid should have walloped the resort harder than it has – with a death toll of 766 and 10,257 cases since the pandemic began.

Although the virus can affect healthy people of any age without any underlying health conditions, poor health is a risk factor.

In layman’s terms, the fatter we are, the more cigarettes we smoke, and the more alcohol we knock back, the worse prepared we are to fight off the disease.

But Dr Rapura said: “We have consistently had lower rates than other areas. You would have expected us to have been at the worst end of Covid and we haven’t been.

“Our population has followed the rules, generally speaking. We have got an older population. We have a lot of care homes. So people have obviously been naturally cautious. They’ve done the right things.

“We have tested at high rates throughout. Even when we haven’t had high case rates we’ve been testing loads and I’ve always pushed the message: ‘Test, test, test’.

“We put a protective ring, particularly in Blackpool, around our care homes. That’s really helped.

“Locally, we have done lots of things earlier than other areas. Our public protection team has been hot on making sure businesses are compliant. If we need to take any enforcement activity, we will take it.

“We were the first area to put Covid marshals in place.

“Nationally, the Test, Track and Trace system has had a bad rep because it has not been effective. I was keen to take that on locally and we are doing it locally now. All the positive cases that come through, my team is the team doing the contact tracing. That works much better.

“As a town I think we can be proud of the things we have put in place, which have stopped us having the excesses of Covid because you would have expected somewhere like Blackpool to have suffered the worst consequences and we haven’t.”

VACCINES 'WORK' AGAINST VARIANT BUT THEY'RE NOT 100 PER CENT EFFECTIVE

As part of his weekly coronavirus briefing, which he gives each Wednesday, the Vic’s medical director last week said nine people were being treated for Covid – up from two the week before and none a fortnight prior.Dr Jim Gardner also said five had received no jabs, one had had one, while three had got three.

Dr Rajpura said: “We know from the evidence the jabs absolutely work.

"As Jim said, the majority of people in the Vic are people who haven’t had a single jab.

"Then there are people who have had incomplete vaccinations.

"And then of course there will be a small number who have had both jabs, but you have got to remember that is a small number and, also, some of those individuals are often quite elderly, frail folk that for whatever reason have ended up not mounting an immune response and are still vulnerable to Covid despite the vaccination programme.

“That will happen because you have got to remember the vaccine is very effective but it’s not 100 per cent effective.

“The vaccination programme is absolutely effective and everyone should come forward and get it, but that doesn’t stop a small number still ending up in hospital.”

Dr Rajpura continued: “The biggest concern was, is the vaccine still effective against this particular Delta variant? And what we can say is one dose gives you some protection. Two doses give you very good protection.”

VACCINE BUS SET TO ARRIVE ON THE FYLDE COAST

A mobile vaccines van is set to come to Blackpool and St Annes next week.

Over 18s can turn up without an appointment and get a Pfizer jab.

From 10am-4pm, it will be in:

* Bank Hey Street, Blackpool town centre, on Monday;

* St Annes United Reformed Church, St George’s Road, on Wednesday;

* Bickerstaffe Square, Blackpool town centre, on Thursday; and

* Aldi’s car park, Waterloo Road, South Shore, on Friday.

Lancashire’s vaccines boss, Jane Scattergood, said: “We all want to see a return to normality and the only way to get there is to make sure as many people as possible are vaccinated.

“We are working with local GP practices who will provide the staff to support the van and deliver the vaccines when it is in their area.”

Dr Rajpura said the van is targeting the “vaccine hesitant population” – but not necessarily conspiracy theorist anti-vaxxers.

He said: “What we know is antivaxxers are a very small proportion of the population and it’s quite hard to change their mind. They are very fixed in terms of their views.

“There’s a much larger core who haven’t had the vaccine who are just vaccine hesitant.

"For whatever reason, they have not come forward. Whether it’s down to ability to get to a vaccination centre or they have just not had the time, or whether they’ve seen some information on the internet which they are not sure about.

“There’s a group there that we have been trying to work with.”

Dr Rajpura said there have been concerns about social media rumours around the vaccine’s impact on fertility and added: “Again, there’s no evidence to say the vaccine causes any problems around fertility.

“In fact, pregnant women can have the vaccine as well.

“People just have some questions, you know. They just want some answers.

“We have spent a lot of team talking to lots of people, just myth-busting some of the myths out there.”

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