- R-rate as high as before the last lockdown
- Positive tests rise
- Vaccination programme reduces hospitalisations
THE LOCAL rate of community transmission of Covid-19 is now as high as it was when Wales entered lockdown in January this year.
The Herald investigated a suggestion that the number of cases of confirmed Covid infections was increasing, and businesses were caught between a general shortage of staff and a rising number of staff absences caused by Covid-19.
THE CURRENT NUMBERS
Data shared with The Herald by Hywel Dda UHB shows that the R-rate, used as an indicator for Covid-19’s spread, is now 1.44.
That means that every person infected with Covid transmits the virus to more than 1 person.
Earlier this year, before lockdown eased, the R-rate was around 0.8.
The rate is now headed towards an autumn and winter peak, the same as 2020.
In the last month, the number of positive tests for the killer virus in the Hywel Dda UHB area has significantly increased.
On August 25 alone, the Board recorded 264 confirmed new cases.
In each of the last three weeks to August 25, the number of confirmed new cases has risen.
That fits the national picture, which shows cases rising at a much sharper rate now than they did at the beginning of the second wave in October last year.
However, and importantly, the rates for hospitalisation for those infected with Covid have fallen.
That suggests that the Welsh Government’s vaccination programme has loosened the link between Covid infection and the type of serious sickness that needs hospital treatment as a result.
Although the Welsh Government has extended its vaccination programme to include young people, take-up among that group remains relatively low.
Swayed by scare stories and the sort of pseudo-science peddled online, some in older age groups have either been deterred from taking the vaccine when it’s offered or refused it altogether.
Reaching those groups, potentially at greater risk than younger people, and addressing the gap in vaccine take-up among BAME individuals, remains a major challenge for the Welsh Government.
To take two data points four weeks apart, in the week to August 3, there were five Covid deaths in Wales.
In the week ending August 31, that number was 18.
Five new deaths were recorded on August 31 alone.
The drivers for those increases are undoubtedly this summer’s relaxation of restrictions on social distancing, the opening of nightclubs and bars, and a significant drop in the number of people wearing masks or taking the same precautions as they did before Wales moved to Level Zero.
Those factors, combined with the greater infectiousness of Covid’s Delta variant, mean that Wales heads into the autumn – and the flu season – with more sick people and a greater likelihood of abnormal seasonal strains on NHS services.
SCHOOLS’ RETURN LIKELY TO HAVE AN IMPACT
As schools and further education colleges return from the summer holiday and universities return later in September, the number of young people mixing together will inevitably rise.It follows that the increased number of contacts increases the possibility of infection with Covid-19.Headteachers have criticised new guidance from the Welsh Government for schools as being both too late in the day and contradictory.
Laura Doel, director of school leaders’ union, NAHT Cymru, said: “We welcome the fact that schools have until 20 September to transition to the new framework.
“However, there are elements of the framework that are contradictory and likely to lead to confusion.
“The framework states that Wales is at low risk, yet the Welsh Government instructed schools to continue with lateral flow testing on secondary pupils and all school staff. According to today’s framework, that is a practice for when we are at high risk.
“The advice refers to rising hospital admissions and the seven-day rolling incidence of infection, which appears to put us in the moderate risk category.
“Added to this, there is a lack of differentiation between the measures to take, depending on the risk level. When we are talking risk, when we are planning for what we want to be a sustainable return, we must be absolutely clear of the risk level.”
In the three-weekly Covid update delivered last week, Mark Drakeford said: “Coronavirus has not gone away. While we are able to remain at Alert Level Zero, we must not abandon all the simple measures which have done so much to keep us all safe.”
When questioned, the First Minister refused to rule out reimposing restrictions if the situation deteriorated.
Russell George, the Shadow Health Minister, responded to that prospect: “Talk of reimposing restrictions is completely unnecessary at this stage.
“Moving forward we need to ensure all public health decisions in Wales are taken on the best possible data, with a focus on hospitalisation figures and a clear breakdown of those who are admitted due to COVID or other illnesses, and also those who acquire it in a hospital setting.”
In July, an S4C investigation revealed a quarter of all deaths from Covid-19 in Wales arose from hospital transmission.
PRESSURES AGAINST LOCKDOWN
Both the UK and Welsh Governments are determined to avoid any further lockdown or reimposition of restrictions now relaxed.
Much, however, depends on how long vaccination programmes, including booster shots and an extended flu vaccination programme in Wales, can keep a lid on the number of hospitalisations and whether a new and more infectious strain arises.
The issue is especially acute in the UK, which has fewer Intensive Care Beds per head of population and fewer Intensive Care specialists than any other Western European nation.
At the start of the pandemic, Wales’s ICU bed capacity was 153.
That is 4.9 for every 100,000 of our population.
In Croatia, a country of approximately the same population and around the same size of Wales, the number of ICU beds was 14.7 for every 100,000 of population.
Any further pressure on Wales’s sensitive NHS capacity will have an inevitable knock-on effect on the availability and promptness of diagnoses and treatments for chronic conditions, including heart disease and cancer.
The picture is further complicated by a yawning gap between the demand for social care staff and the number of applicants for job vacancies.
Those pressures, combined with the economic costs of lockdown, act as an effective brake on governments’ range of actions.
And that’s setting aside the inevitable political fallout of new restrictions’ imposition, especially in Westminster.