Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi was speaking less than 24 hours after the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed that NHS leaders across the county are growing increasingly concerned about “significant numbers” of people testing positive for the Indian strain in the community. The LDRS has asked Public Health England North West for the exact figures in the county council area.
In two separate interviews with the BBC, Dr. Karunanithi said he said he did not want to see the “blunt instrument” of local lockdowns returning to Lanacashire, but also warned that the next steps on the government’s roadmap out of the national lockdown – to be taken on Monday – would “add to the risk” posed by variants.
He added that he “shared the fury” of his counterpart in Blackburn with Darwen, where it was briefly suggested on Thursday that the vaccine rollout was being sped up and extended to all over-18s in some wards – before the local authority later said that nationally eligibility criteria would continue to apply.
Dr. Karunanithi said that Lancashire was at the stage where community transmission of the Indian variant was beginning to occur.
“What we are seeing here..is very localised outbreaks involving these variants – often younger people, often presenting with atypical symptoms, not the classical Covid symptoms in the early stages,” he told the BBC News Channel on Friday morning.
“If we don’t act quickly, particularly by flexing the vaccination programme, [then] in three [or] four weeks time, the variant will be very widespread in many other parts of the country, including Lancashire.
“Actually, vaccines can do the major heavy lifting here if there is a specific national policy that helps areas with the higher levels of transmission to go much faster than others areas [with vaccination].
“And, of course, the indoor mixing [restrictions that are] relaxing from 17th May and the international travel – for which we do not have a robust arrangement to support the returning travellers – are only going to add to the risk.
“So there is a need for much more concerted, co-ordinated, swift action – and be prepared for a rise in those variants.”
Currently, over-38-year-olds are eligible for a first dose of vaccine – along with adults of any age who are classed as clinically or extremely clinically vulnerable to Covid, those working in frontline health and social care roles, people with a learning disability and anyone acting as the main carer to someone deemed vulnerable to coronavirus.
On Friday morning, the vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said that the government was prepared to “flex the vaccine programme according to the clinical advice”.
It was reported later in the day that the over-20s could attend a walk-in vaccination clinic in the Ainsdale area of Sefton on Merseyside after a spike in cases in the locality.
Dr. Karunanithi said in his TV interview that there was no longer a need to move rigidly down the age range with vaccinations, because the objective of protecting the most vulnerable groups had largely been met. He said it was now reasonable to “follow where the virus is transmitting” – which is currently in the younger age brackets.
Speaking to BBC Radio Lancashire on Friday, he added: “We just need that freedom to act, within a framework, so we can protect our residents as we see fit and in partnership with the residents.
“The people of Lancashire have done a brilliant job [for]…more than the last year now – but we can’t go on like this forever and it’s too much to ask people to remain under the restrictions. We know vaccines work in preventing transmission, that’s much more of a precise instrument.
“But vaccines [aren’t] the only thing – because it is not over yet across the globe, so for some time we need to get used to living with the variants [and] hand-washing, face coverings, two metres [social distancing], fresh air and test, test and test.
“That’s the single best thing each and every person in Lancashire can do – get your regular test – and if you are positive, please isolate and get a PCR confirmation [test].”
Professor Dominic Harrison, Blackburn with Darwen’s director of public health, told BBC Radio Lancashire that around half of the 63 Indian variant cases confirmed or suspected in his council area involved community transmission that could be linked to “index cases” of individuals who had travelled from India.
He said local directors of public health were “struggling” with central government.
“At the moment, they are not allowing areas with high variant spread to vaccinate, which we think makes absolutely no sense.
“I am furious – I cannot understand why the JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] or the Department of Health and Social Care are stopping local directors of public health from taking the action they know will halt this surge of the Indian variant.
“Variants in general are going to be a problem right over the next 12 months. And what we need is a clear action plan to cope with them.
“And what we need is to not threaten local areas with lockdown if their rates go up with variants, but support them to take action to control that.
“At the moment, the government is tying one hand behind my back with responding to the clear risk we have got in our local authority area, but also the clear risk to the wider North West region.”