Positive tests for coronavirus infections in Hastings were reported last week to have increased almost fourfold within a seven day period. In the week ending 28th November there were 63 cases recorded across the borough; in the following week ending 5th December the number leapt to 236, the highest rate in the whole of Sussex. The rolling weekly figure up to 8th December released last Saturday by Public Health England showed 279 cases.

Infection data for Rother and Wealden districts also disclosed substantial, if lesser, increases. 

When the government’s regional tier system was reviewed yesterday (Monday), many observers were predicting that East Sussex would lose its Tier 2 status and join neighbouring Kent in having Tier 3 restrictions imposed – barely a week before the anticipated Christmas relaxation. That didn’t occur, to the relief of many in the hospitality sector.

For most socialisation purposes there’s little difference between the two tiers –in either case, no mixing of households is allowed, save in limited ‘support bubbles’, either indoors or in most public spaces. But under a Tier 3 regime, all pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues would have been required to close except for the provision of takeaways – a potentially huge economic hit for those businesses and their workforces (many casually employed and thus ineligible for furlough) at the height of the festive season.

Mood swing

Nevertheless there has been a change of mood, nowhere more striking than in the pronouncements of Hastings & Rye MP, Sally-Ann Hart. 

On the Halloween weekend of 31st October/1st November she told constituents that she was undecided as to whether to support Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposals for a second lockdown. In an article posted on her constituency website on 3rd November, she wrote: “I am incredibly disappointed with the Prime Minister’s decision to introduce new restrictions across England yesterday, as I have been an ardent supporter of the Government’s regional approach. Hastings and Rye is not experiencing a high infection rate and I felt it was sensible to keep as much of our country and local economies working as far as possible where rates were low.” 

In the event she did vote with the government in Parliament during the following week– in contrast to neighbouring MP Huw Merriman representing Battle and Bexhill, who filed through the No Lobby. 

But last Wednesday she reacted to the increased case numbers with rather grimmer rhetoric: “I am very concerned by the sharp and sustained rise in Covid-19 cases across Hastings and Rother,” she wrote. “Having spoken to the local Director of Public Health, there is now a real anxiety that we could see a prolonged period of high infection rates as seen in North Kent. If this is the case, then our area is now teetering towards Tier Three restrictions in the coming weeks. 

“I am urging all local residents to please follow the guidance and comply with the Covid-19 restrictions. I know this is incredibly hard for all of us, but if we ignore the rules cases will go up, our hospital will be overwhelmed and ultimately, we will see the desperate scenes of families losing loved ones in the run up to Christmas. If we follow the restrictions, we can avoid Tier 3 measures and protect our NHS, ultimately saving lives.”

Evidence base?

There is no clear evidence base for the fears which Mrs Hart expressed. No report has emanated from the Conquest hospital that its services are yet under any greater pressure than in a normal winter. Furthermore, it has been apparent since the onset of the pandemic that advanced age, usually combined with serious underlying health problems, is by far the highest risk factor in turning Covid-19 infections into life-threatening illnesses. Data released by Public Health England last Saturday show that the overwhelming majority of recent positive tests in Hastings have been of people between the ages of 10 and 60, with the highest proportion of infections in the 10-19 range (see the embedded table). Less than 15% were over 60; only 8% over 70. 

Comparisons of positive test numbers should also take into account the relative ease of accessing tests. In earlier months this summer, it was extremely difficult for the general public of Hastings and Rother, and even for key workers or others at high risk, to access test sites. The nearest to Hastings was at the Amex Stadium in Falmer or at Gatwick Airport. Now that there is a full-time functioning test site at Helenswood on the Ridge, and others operating in Bexhill and Eastbourne, it is hardly surprising that more positive cases are being counted.

Enter the vaccine

Last Tuesday, in the meantime, initial stocks of the coronavirus vaccine manufactured by Pfizer/BioNTech have been delivered to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, and are being allocated to GP practices across East Sussex for the start of a mass inoculation programme. 

The NHS East Sussex CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) announced that top priority for receipt of the vaccine will be the residents of care homes for older adults and their carers; next in line will be over-80s, then successively over-75s, over-65s, over-60s, then under-60s who are at higher risk from underlying health conditions. 

Other coronavirus vaccines, including the Oxford University/AstraZeneca product backed by the government, also seem likely to come on stream within a few weeks. However, national pronouncements made in recent days by Public Health England suggest that, for people who are under the age 50 and don’t exhibit such health problems, there is unlikely to be any vaccination opportunity offered on the NHS until at least March/April. 

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