That was the message from Lancashire County Council’s director of public health on the day indoor mixing was once again permitted for groups of up to six people or two households – and indoor hospitality and entertainment venues reopened for the first time since being forced to shut in January.
Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi also used a press conference to urge locals to check newly-clarified eligibility criteria for vaccination – and take up the offer of a jab if they fall into one of the listed groups.
Separately, it is understood that over 36-year-olds are likely to become eligible within days - and 34 and 35-year-olds later this week.
Reporters were told that cases of the variant of Covid first detected in India were rising “exponentially” in parts of Central and East Lancashire. County-wide figures of the new strain have not been published, although the Local Democracy Reporting Service has sought them from both the Lancashire Resilience Forum and Public Health England North West.
While community transmission has become more common in Blackburn with Darwen, elsewhere in the county the main source of concern is “localised outbreaks”, often centred on schools and colleges.
It was against that backdrop that Dr. Karunanithi invited residents to make their own assessment of how far they should seek to rediscover the freedoms that were once the norm – although he stopped short of advising people to act as though the restrictions had not been eased.
“We are rapidly detecting and managing [the outbreaks in education settings], but we think that, given the exponential rise in cases [and] given the high transmissiblity and the further significant unlocking that is happening today, we are anticipating cases to rise in the coming weeks.
“To keep Lancashire safe, we need to think local, we need to think twice about the risks in our neighbourhoods and our county – and make decisions that will keep you, your loved ones and Lancashire safe.
“Please plan your mixing really carefully – meeting outdoors is much, much safer than meeting indoors; meeting [fewer] people is much safer than meeting more people; and meeting for short periods of time is much safer than long periods of time. [And], definitely, take your regular testing.
“We know that people are more likely to listen if there is a consultant, clear nationwide message – and I think that is there to the extent that the responsibility is on each and every one of us to assess the risks and take the necessary steps to keep Lancashire safe,” Dr. Karunanithi added.
Amid the recent clamour for local areas to be given more freedom to manage the latest phase of the pandemic response themselves, the press conference heard that discussions are ongoing about providing more support for people to self-isolate.
Blackburn with Darwen’s director of public health Professor Dominic Harrison said it could be offered “where we feel that that [it] would make a difference, for instance, to the capacity of people on low incomes to comply with self-isolation guidance once they’re confirmed as positive”.
Meanwhile, Lancashire residents returning from abroad are now being advised to take a rapid-result lateral flow test on their first day back in the country, in addition to the tests required two days and eight days after returning from green or amber-list destinations.
However, on the thornier issue of broadening access to the vaccine, the message was that national eligibility criteria continue to apply – but that people should scrutinise it to see if they fit the bill.
The NHS in Lancashire has stressed in new guidance that as well as the over-38s currently eligible, anybody over 18 can also get the jab if they work in the health and social care sector, have any underlying health conditions, are living, caring or working with anyone with underlying health conditions, or if they act as a carer for someone – paid or unpaid – with no proof of their caring role required.
Professor Harrison said that a “very high percentage” of the population was likely to meet one of those criteria and invited over-18s in his area to book an appointment to discuss their eligibility “one-to-one” with a clinician at a vaccination centre.
However, Dr Karunanithi suggested residents elsewhere should examine the criteria carefully for themselves.
“People living in deprived conditions in some parts of Lancashire are much more at risk of getting the virus as well as being affected by the virus compared to many other areas.
“It isn’t an issue of not having enough supplies as things stand – so what we really need is for people to come forward to get the vaccine, particularly the younger age groups where the virus is actually circulating and is the mode of transmission to other age groups [and] particularly if you are working in the health and social care sector.
“It is incredibly important that everybody across Lancashire looks really really carefully at the eligibility criteria and [that you] book your jab if you have met [it]. It is the best buy we could have, given the current circumstances, to keep Lancashire safe.
“It takes three weeks, approximately, for [the effects] to kick in – and we believe if we take that action now, we can still have time to prevent further spread [of] the new variant to become established in the community as widespread as it could have [been] if people hadn’t had come forward for the vaccine,” Dr. Karunanithi added.