Bolton care homes have been asked not to follow England’s roadmap out of lockdown next week but to continue to restrict visitors, with the local authority citing concern over a possible “severe outbreak” of the Covid variant first detected in India.
Some schools in the Greater Manchester borough have also told pupils and staff to keep wearing masks for now, despite face coverings no longer being a requirement from Monday.
The moves came as public health employers, plus local MPs and the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, asked the government to allow Bolton to offer vaccinations to all people over 16 in an attempt to curb infections.
Blackburn’s Labour-run council on Thursday told the Guardian it planned to became the first English local authority to offer jabs to all adults, only to row back on the plans by early evening. Just after 5pm it put out a statement saying it would be sticking to government guidelines and that only those aged 38 or older or in a vulnerable group would be allowed a vaccine.
At the moment Bolton has the second highest Covid-19 infection rate in the UK, with 152 cases per 100,000 people, behind Erewash in Derbyshire. That rate is half what it was in November, when Bolton experienced its second wave, but with many cases linked to the variant first detected in India, known as B.1.617.2, there are fears infections could spread across Greater Manchester and beyond if not tackled immediately.
Most infections in Bolton so far have been in the younger, largely unvaccinated, population living in the city’s poorest, most ethnically diverse, wards.
Donna Hall, chair of Bolton NHS, said, in a personal capacity: “The public health team are detecting cases in young, unvaccinated, people, though we have had the odd case when we’ve had older people coming in who have deliberately not wanted to get vaccinated.”
She had not heard so far of any local cases where a vaccinated person had caught the new variant. “That’s a big relief. But over time it mutates so we still have to be really careful and there are question marks over whether we are unlocking too soon next week. Last week there was a 20% increase in the R-number in Bolton each day.”
Hall said the NHS in England should follow Scotland’s lead in allowing “flexibility” in the vaccination guidelines with responses to outbreaks. Last week Moray in north-east Scotland invited all adults for a vaccine following a spike in infections.
Andy Morgan, a Bolton councillor and cabinet member for adult social care, also runs a care home in Bolton. He said the council had written to all homes in the district asking them not to follow the roadmap.
“The government have said care homes can increase visits to five named people from Monday, but we in Bolton have given guidance to our care homes saying we don’t think they should implement that guidance and should stick to two named people for at least the next two weeks until we know what’s going on with the variants.”
Since Monday all residents in the BL3 postcode area, in Rumworth, Deane and Great Lever, near the Manchester border, have been encouraged to take Covid-19 PCR tests even if they do not have symptoms.
Yasmin Qureshi, the Labour MP for Bolton South East, disagreed with the clampdown on care homes, saying the positive coronavirus cases were in working-age people. She said she was only “moderately” concerned at this stage.
Qureshi also said the affected postcodes included University of Bolton, the town’s train station, bus station, community college and sixth form, which all contributed towards increased risk of transmission. All three were also among the most deprived wards in England, with high levels of multi occupancy housing.
The MP said she was firmly against a return to the regional tier system, arguing that it did not work to control virus spread. She backed calls for surge vaccinations for all adults in response to the rise in cases and urged residents of affected areas to take precautions and continue social distancing and wearing masks “I don’t want any more imposition, but I think I would suggest that people voluntarily exercise their own judgment,” she said.
In Great Lever, which includes the city centre, 12.5% of households are overcrowded, almost double the Bolton average, and 48% of residents are of Asian origin (28% Indian and 15% Pakistani).
Mark Logan, Conservative MP for Bolton North East, said he had been liaising with Downing Street and the Department for Health and Social Care since yesterday, when he joined calls to vaccinate all adults in the town. In response to Blackburn council’s decision he said that he had been pushing for most of Bolton to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
Logan said that Bolton had had it tough since the start of the pandemic, “much tougher than nearly every single place in the UK”, pointing out that July 2020 was one of the only times the town was not in some sort of restricted measures. “That’s why we need to pull out all the stops to get Bolton over what we hope is the final hurdle to freedom,” he said.
Burnham joined the call for Bolton and other areas experiencing Covid surges to have “surge vaccinations” across the population. But he said he had “serious reservations” about any local lockdowns being implemented after the prime minister refused to rule them out.
Morgan said Bolton was ready to offer the vaccine to all people over 16. “Our medical leads at the CCG [clinical commissioning groups] and public health directors also support the call. We are ready, we’ve got the capacity should we be given permission to roll it out. Obviously it’s got to be done under guidance from Sage and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation — we don’t want to be seen to be bucking the system. But clearly we are suffering what could become quite a severe outbreak in Bolton.”
Meanwhile, concerns have been raised about rising numbers of coronavirus cases in Glasgow, as the city prepares to relax restrictions along with most of mainland Scotland next Monday. Although the new variant first detected in India is suspected involved, this has yet to be confirmed by genomic sequencing.
Public health officials in Glasgow said they were carefully monitoring case rates in districts to the south of the city, including in Pollokshields and Battlefield. The increase is thought to be driven by increased household mixing, with cases concentrated in younger age groups and few people requiring hospital treatment as yet.
Although Linda de Caestecker, director of public health at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, said she “anticipated” that Glasgow would still move to the lower level of Covid controls as planned next week, latest published case-rate data for Glasgow was 58.3 per 100,000 population, above one of the main benchmarks for moving an area from level three to level two.