The new public health measures announced this week will further restrict our freedoms to associate and to trade. The government, based on advice from medical and scientific advisors, is taking these steps as an attempt to limit the more rapid spread of COVID and to avert our hospitals being overrun.
Bedfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust is the main local hospital provider for local residents and the gov.uk website provides statistics on coronavirus – testing, cases, hospitalisations – which may help us understand some of the rationale for these measures.
The chart below shows the number of COVID patients in either Bedford or Luton hospitals from March until the start of this year. The chart shows that, locally, there are more COVID patients in hospital now than at the peak in April 2020.
The next chart shows the number of COVID patients in critical care beds. There are fewer COVID patients in critical care beds now than in April 2020, despite there being more COVID patients in hospital now. Treatments in hospital are now better focused but there is, in my view, a strong likelihood that the numbers in critical care beds will increase over the next few weeks.
The numbers in hospital are being driven, and will continue to be driven, by a sharp rise in infections and in the proportion of tests that are positive.
The statistics for Bedford Borough and for Central Bedfordshire shown below, demonstrate that there has been a consistent increase in the percentage of positive test results for the past two months, other than in mid-December when there was a very significant increase in the number of tests taken – presumably as a precaution by families before planned visits over Christmas.
Tests for Residents in Bedford Borough:
Tests for Residents in Central Bedfordshire:
As your Member of Parliament, I have to weigh up the immediate risk to public health from the pressure on hospitals if the measures are not introduced versus the impacts on public health and the economy if the measures are introduced.
In my view, these further restrictions will, at best, provide our local hospitals with more time to manage the current and potentially higher future level of admissions, including to critical care.
These restrictions, including those introduced since November, have caused substantial economic harm, reduced educational attainment and separated families when they would most want to be together.
However, it seems clear locally that there has been a major shift in the transmissibility of the virus and that will place new and as yet unquantified strain on access to hospital care in Bedfordshire.
The pressure on our local hospital capacity is already apparent and we should now do what we can to help our ambulance drivers, paramedics and hospital staff by following the new guidance. This is even more important as we initiate the mass vaccination programme.
Our progress with vaccinations is a major success of the past year. We can too easily forget how rapidly scientists across the world have produced multiple vaccines to help control the virus.
As of today, the number of vaccinations in the UK compares very favourably with other countries (see below), but we know we are at the start of a long journey.
The Prime Minister is right to set a challenging target of vaccinating the top four, most at risk, groups by mid-February, but we should be under no illusion of the effort required.
Speaking with health professionals locally and with the Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, I am acutely aware of the many logistical hurdles ahead. Although residents in Central Bedfordshire have already been receiving vaccinations, local concerns have been raised about the delayed start to vaccinations in Bedford Borough. There are other concerns about the forward visibility on supplies and on the shift in timescales for people to receive the second dose of a vaccine. I have raised all of these with the Department of Health and our local Commissioning Group. Vaccinations will start this evening (6th January) in Bedford Borough and am hopeful of improvements within days.
This country is not responsible for the emergence of this more contagious variant of COVID but this country has a responsibility to contain it. This country is responsible for being a leader in funding the development of vaccine research, obtaining regulatory approvals and making a fast start on mass vaccinations. The challenge now is to complete this programme effectively, swiftly and safely enabling this long, dark period in our history to come to an end.