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Early warning data in Bedford revealed a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases two weeks before the government acted on it, sources have claimed.
Tests of the town’s sewage – a potentially crucial early alert system – indicated Bedford had a rapidly escalating problem probably linked to the India variant, but no attempt was made by central government to intervene, the sources claim.
Public health officials in Bedford believe that the government chose, instead, to highlight rising cases linked to the India variant in the north-west of England to try to keep its roadmap out of lockdown on track.
By the time surge testing began in Bedford last week the town was recording the second-highest rate of Covid-19 in England, with cases doubling every five days.
Health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed last Tuesday Bedford was the “next biggest cause of concern” after Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen in Lancashire. However, surge testing had started in Bolton 10 days earlier than in Bedfordshire’s county town, despite sources saying that government officials knew wastewater analysis at the time strongly suggested Bedford had a similar problem.
“Wastewater analysis certainly did show a problem two weeks before Hancock decided we were a priority. They were very slow to respond to Bedford’s situation at a government level,” said a source with knowledge of the situation.
Responding to the claims, councillor Louise Jackson, portfolio holder for public health and wellbeing on Bedford borough council, said: “We were second in the country in terms of infection rates and they were still talking about Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen. Why on earth would you want to miss Bedford off the list? Unless of course you were doing it because we are so close to London. They didn’t want anybody to think it was anything other than a localised issue.”
Jackson, a Labour councillor, added: “We were seeing these vaccine buses, people queuing down the street and all these things being mobilised in the north-west, but nothing in Bedford.”
She also expressed frustration that the government had not shared data on passengers returning to Bedford from abroad at a time the India variant was taking hold.
India was added to the government’s travel ban red list on 23 April, two weeks after neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, prompting criticism it had come too late to prevent the new variant being imported.
“It was clear to anyone who understands how the diasporas move around the world, spring was going to be a time when you saw people returning to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to see family; in the summer it’s too hot. We could have easily seen this coming,” said Jackson.
On Saturday the testing of sewage samples to determine which Covid-19 variants are most prevalent was ramped up to incorporate two-thirds of England’s population.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the programme was able to pinpoint outbreaks in particular neighbourhoods, and pilot projects were under way to monitor prisons and food production.
Although individuals with Covid cannot be identified, the programme allows public health officials to discover if Covid cases are growing without relying on testing, and whether or not people with infections are showing symptoms.
Last year epidemiologists discovered it was possible to detect the virus in wastewater if at least one in 10,000 people was infected. In a city such as Exeter – where a new laboratory opened last month dedicated to analysing wastewater – which has a population of about 130,000, it means that if at least 13 people have the virus then researchers can detect whether cases are increasing or not.
Sewage samples can also be used to track the growth of variants of concern, such as the India variant.
The DHSC highlighted the experience in Luton, just 20 miles from Bedford and where relatively few people had been signing up for Covid testing, but where there had been consistent positive cases in the town.
Monitoring wastewater showed that the increase came from “limited person-to-person transmission”, the DHSC said, which allowed Luton borough council to target local testing.
Lucy Hubber, Luton’s director of public health, said: “The additional detail from targeted wastewater analysis acts as an extra layer of reassurance around the effectiveness of local outbreak control measures.”
The DHSC said: “We have worked closely with local authorities throughout our pandemic response and have always been transparent and open around sharing data to inform local decision making. Once the variant of concern was identified in wastewater samples, it was shared with the local authority in good time and local action was rapidly taken.
“Earlier this week, the government announced new decisive local actions, including in Bedford, to halt the spread of the variant of concern first identified in India. This includes enhanced genomic sequencing, surge testing and driving vaccine uptake in most affected areas.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Ministers ‘failed to act on Bedford Covid variant surge for two weeks’ | Coronavirus