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Question Time provides useful information while East Sussex health indicators improve

Welcome light on the latest developments in the local battle against Covid-19 was thrown in Friday’s Question Time on Isolation Station, including news on the imminent roll-out of asymptomatic testing in East Sussex. Meanwhile, as the government unveils its roadmap to normality, the latest East Sussex health statistics indicate substantial improvements. Research and graphics by Russell Hall, text by Nick Terdre.

Sussex Resilience Forum’s bid for rolling out asymptomatic testing for Covid-19 was submitted to the government last week, and assuming the go-ahead comes this week, it will get under way with a soft launch working with some specific groups on Monday 1 March, East Sussex County Council leader Keith Glazier told viewers of Question Time on Friday. A second stage of roll-out is planned for a week later, and guidance on how the operation will be organised will be shared once the okay is given, he added.

Question Time, in which a panel of elected representatives including local MP Sally-Ann Hart, Hastings Borough Council’s deputy leader Cllr Colin Fitzgerald, as well as Glazier, representatives of community and business interests and a doctor, answered questions from viewers on the Covid-19 pandemic, was arranged by Hastings Emergency Action Response Team (Heart), whose co-founders Alastair Fairley and Kim Batty chaired the session, and broadcast by Isolation Station.

The information on mass testing was prompted by our own Russell Hall, who asked when asymptomatic community testing would be available to everyone in Hastings and how it would operate. Glazier was adding to a written answer from the East Sussex director of Public Health, Darrell Gale, who was unable to be present.

Convenient access

“This is likely to include a mix of community testing sites and bookable testing appointments in selected community pharmacies, thus giving more people across our county more convenient access to where they live or work,” Gale said, adding that regular asymptomatic testing had already been carried out on NHS staff, teachers and those working in care homes for a number of months.

East Sussex will be among the last local authorities in England to introduce mass community testing, after deciding in December that it was not needed and then changing its mind in January.

As one in three infected individuals are thought to be asymptomatic, this form of testing is important to detect such cases. However, working out a strategy and putting the logistics in place is time-consuming. However, the government reported on 10 February that nine out of 10 local authorities in England had already signed up for community testing.

Fairley mentioned that the government had announced plans to introduce asymptomatic testing for all businesses with 50 or more employees who were unable to work from home.

Graham Peters, chair of Team Sussex and vice-chair of the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, said that as soon as the details were available, Team Sussex would work with the local chamber of commerce and other partners to implement the scheme, and hoped it would eventually percolate down to smaller businesses.

Vaccination services

In response to a question about whether vaccination facilities would be extended to GP surgeries and local pharmacies, Dr Greg Wilcox, a retired GP now helping out in the Conquest Hospital hub, explained that it was the local GP surgeries which backed the establishment of the main vaccination centre at Hastings Centre on The Ridge, and there were no plans to start vaccinations in the practices.

Some community pharmacies were already playing an important role in vaccination, he said, and NHS England, which was keen for more to become involved, was seeking expressions of interest from community pharmacies and local pharmaceutical committees in leading a vaccination service.

Improving trends

Meanwhile the trends associated with the disease in East Sussex have changed substantially since the county, and Hastings in particular, found itself among the hardest hit regions in December and January.

As the above interactive chart shows, infection rates across East Sussex have fallen sharply since early January to less than 100 7-day cases per 100,000 residents, and now stand below the England average. The East Sussex and England rates were equal on 26 January, but by the week to 17 February the county’s rate was 55% lower.

Occupancy of the 723 general and acute beds in East Sussex hospitals on 16 February was 18.7%, down from a peak of 51.4% on 11 January, when the number of general and acute beds was 757. At the peak on 11 January there were 422 Covid patients, which had fallen to 158 on 16 February, down 63%.

The chart of East Sussex hospital activity below shows peaks for number of patients and admissions in January, falling to lower levels in February.

Deaths in decline

Deaths are also in decline. Public Health England data for Hastings show a total of 240 deaths within 28 days of a positive test up to 15 February. The 7-day average reached a peak of 6.1 daily deaths on 31 December, but had slipped to 1.1 on 8 February. The total number of such deaths in Rother is 327, with a 7-day average peak of 6.9 on 28 December falling to 1.6 on 8 February.

Excess deaths over the 2015-19 average are also used as a measure. The chart below for Hastings, based on Office for National Statistics data, shows a sharp spike in excess deaths due to Covid extending from December into January and then falling away.

Test positivity – the proportion of people returning positive tests – fell below the WHO recommended ceiling of 5% in Hastings on 11 February and in Rother on 4 February (anything above 5% indicates that not enough testing is being done, in WHO’s view). In the week to 16 February test positivity was 2.5% in Hastings and 1.5% in Rother.

Tests using lateral flow devices (LFDs) – the type which will be used for mass community testing – already account for the majority of tests administered in Hastings and Rother: 53% of all tests in Hastings and 56% in Rother in the week to 16 February. Speaking on Question Time, Hart said LFDs had worked really well for the NHS.

Meanwhile NHS data by Clinical Commissioning Group show that 92.1% of East Sussex residents aged 70 or more had had their first dose of vaccine up to 14 February, as did as many as 35.3% of those aged 16+. That suggests that, assuming that all those falling into the top four priority groups by age were offered a jab, almost 8% declined. Altogether 29.3% of the county’s population of 557,229 had had a first dose by that date.

Daily cases in the UK up to 22 February. The number of infections is one of the four tests which the government will apply to help it decide when further stages of relaxation of the lockdown can be effected.

Roadmap to normality

Yesterday prime minister Boris Johnson announced a four-stage roadmap for a return to normality, though the timing of the second and subsequent stages is dependent on certain conditions being met, including the vaccine programme going to plan and infection rates not risking a surge in hospital admissions.

The first stage is itself divided in two: on 8 March, among other measures, schools and colleges will return, and from 29 March up to six people will be allowed to meet outside and outdoor sports to restart.

Further relaxations will come into force no earlier than 12 April, including the reopening of all shops, while restaurants and pubs will be able to serve customers outside.

A further round of easing will be introduced no earlier than 17 May, with measures including 30 people allowed in outdoor gatherings and at events such as weddings, while indoor entertainment such as museums, cinemas and theatres will be able to open and hospitality venues can serve customers indoors.

In the final stage, no earlier than 21 June, all legal limits on social contact will be lifted and nightclubs will be allowed to reopen.

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Posted 10:58 Tuesday, Feb 23, 2021 In: Covid-19

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