Blackburn with Darwen is England's new Covid hotspot

Blackburn becomes Britain’s new Covid hotspot: Infections rise 70% in a week as Indian variant takes hold and Lancashire town overtakes Bolton and Bedford to become worst-hit place in country

  • Blackburn had an infection rate of 365 positive tests for every 100,000 people in most recent count
  • It surpassed Bolton, now on 362, and has had more Indian variant cases than Bedford in past fortnight
  • SAGE advisers are worried about the strain taking over and are urging ministers to reconsider June 21 plans
  • Government hasn’t indicated any changes in the lockdown-ending schedule but it will be based on data

Bolton and Bedford appear to have got the Indian Covid variant under control and stemmed a tide of rising cases, promising data shows – but hotspot Blackburn with Darwen now has the worst infection rate in the UK. 

Scientists advising the Government are calling for England’s June 21 ‘Freedom Day’ to be pushed back, warning that the public’s safety is ‘on a knife-edge’ as the super-infectious variant spreads across the country.

But vaccines are working against the new virus and the turning of the tide in Bolton and Bedford – the original hotspots for the variant – will raise hopes that it can be kept under wraps over summer.

Department of Health data show that Blackburn, which has the second highest rate of Indian variant cases, now has the most infections per person of any local authority in the country after a 70 per cent spike in a week.

The Lancashire town had 365 cases per 100,000 people in the week up to May 25, when a total of 546 people tested positive. It surpassed former hotspot Bolton, which had a rate of 362 and falling, with 1,041 cases.

Positive tests also appear to have turned a corner in Bedford, where there are signs they have declined in recent days after peaking in the third week of May.

Environment Secretary George Eustice today said the Government could not rule anything out in its battle to contain the virus over the summer, but acknowledged it was ‘expected’ that cases would rise as lockdown was lifted.

The UK’s fate will hang on data that comes out over the next fortnight showing how much of an impact the new variant is really having and how easy it is to control.

Bolton’s relegation from the worst-hit area in England should also raise hopes that surge testing and vaccinations helped to keep even the super-infectious Indian variant under control without a lockdown, although it remains to be seen whether cases will keep coming down. 

MAY 18 LEFT, MAY 25 RIGHT – DARKER COLOUR INDICATES HIGHER POSITIVE TEST RATE: Department of Health figures show that infection rates are rising in the North West around Manchester, where the Indian variant is being found most often. Bolton, Blackburn, Manchester, Wigan and Kirklees are all among the past of England with the highest rates of positive tests

A heat map made by the Sanger Institute in London, which analyses different variants of coronavirus, shows that the North West around Manchester had the most cases caused by the Indian variant in the two weeks up to May 22, as well as Bedfordshire

Cases in Blackburn with Darwen, in Lancashire, have clearly been rising towards the end of May and the weekly average is now at the highest level of anywhere in the country

There were signs of a downturn in positive test results in Bedford, which has been one of the country’s Indian variant hotspots

Cases have clearly dropped off in Bolton after peaking in mid-May, showing that efforts at mass vaccination and surge testing appear to have helped to keep the Indian variant under control even without lockdown

At the start of May the council opened more swab-testing sites and offered them to everyone without symptoms in at-risk areas, as well as going door-to-door.

Officials also became more liberal with vaccines, dishing them out to adults of all ages, and stepping up campaigns to have more unvaccinated adults come forward for jabs.

The town gave out thousands of vaccine doses per day throughout the month and the number of people getting tested each day spiked from fewer than 7,000 at the start of the month to more than 20,000 a day within weeks in a population of 200,000 people.

As a result the daily average infection rate – of which 91 per cent of cases are the Indian variant – has fallen from a peak of 453 per 100,000 people to 362 and it appears to still be coming down.

The town’s Covid vaccine rollout chief, Dr Helen Wall, said on BBC Breakfast: ‘I’m pleased to report that things are starting to slow down in terms of the rise here in Covid cases, but we really can’t rest on that. It’s only been a few days of the rates slowing down so we really are keen to keep pushing forwards and get the rates down further.’

Blackburn with Darwen has now taken its place as the worst-hit part of the country, with a spike there being driven by the Indian variant which accounts for at least 95 per cent of all cases.

The director of public health at the council said young people were driving up infections.  Dominic Harrison said in a tweet: ‘[Blackburn with Darwen] rates for 15-19s is raised because of 17-18yo rate of over 1,050/100,000. I think young adults are struggling most at the moment – we need 12-18 vaccination prioritised in high transmission areas as soon as judged safe/effective.’

Blackburn had the second highest number of Indian variant cases found by the Sanger Institute, a London-based lab analysing different variants, in the fortnight up to May 22 – 497 cases, compared to 1,517 in Bolton and 426 in Bedford.

Other parts of the country with the most cases of the B1617.2 variant in those two weeks were Leicester (216), Manchester (178), Birmingham (151), Wigan (150) and Central Bedfordshire (101).

The Indian variant makes up most cases in all those areas except Manchester (48 per cent) – nationally it accounts for between half and three quarters – and all of them have seen the total numbers of cases rise in the most recent week, between May 19 and May 25.

Cases have been increasing in hotspot areas even despite the numbers of tests staying level, official figures suggest, meaning surge testing is likely not behind the rise and there is a genuine increase. 

Cases appear to have started rising in areas where the most individual Indian variant cases have been found in recent weeks, including Wigan, Central Bedfordshire, Manchester, Leicester and Birmingham 

Covid infections surged by 40 per cent in a week after 3,240 were recorded yesterday. The UK also recorded more than 4,000 cases on Friday for the first time since the start of April

But the death rate has remained very low. Although scientists say it is inevitable it will start to rise in the coming weeks. More than 5million over-50s have not received both doses of the vaccine

The roaring success of the jabs drive has seen almost 40million adults given at least one dose and 25million fully inoculated 

UK on track to win race to vaccinate over-50s with both jabs by June 21

The race to double jab millions of over-50s by June 21 is likely to be won as it emerges the NHS drive should be on target to get second doses to the most vulnerable in time for ‘Freedom Day’. 

Around five million people aged over 50 are currently waiting for their second dose, with the NHS needing to vaccinate 225,000 of them every day to meet the target.

But second jabs were handed out at a rate of 400,000 a day most days last week, meaning it would take something catastrophic to knock the drive off course.

Ministers hope that by hitting the target, they won’t have to extend restrictions beyond the ‘unlockdown date’.

Analysis by the Times now suggests that the aim should be met by June 20 if NHS England continues to give second doses to 1.5million over-50s each week.

Some experts fear a third wave has already begun, although the response must be measured because cases were always expected to rise when lockdown rules were lifted. Disaster will be avoided if vaccines keep hospital admissions and deaths down.

Professor Ravi Gupta, who sits on the NERVTAG group of advisers to SAGE, urged No10 to push back the unlocking by ‘a few weeks’ to allow more people to get vaccinated before ditching all social distancing rules.

The Cambridge University expert claimed there were early signs the third wave had already begun – after daily infections breached 4,000 on Friday for the first time in nearly two months – and warned it could become ‘quite explosive’ over the next few months.  

‘I think the problem is we are not too far from reaching the sort of levels of vaccination that would help us contain the virus,’ he told BBC Radio 4.

‘I think that people are not saying we should abandon the June 21 date altogether but just to delay it by a few weeks while we gather more intelligence and we can look at the trajectory in a clearer way.’

Asked whether a delay would be necessary, he said: ‘If you look at the costs and benefits of getting it wrong, I think it is heavily in favour of delay, so I think that’s the key thing.

‘Yes, we will learn to live with it but this date that was set did not take into account the fact we would have a new variant on the horizon, with properties that allow it to evade antibodies to some extent and a virus which is more transmissible.’

He added: ‘It will probably take longer than earlier waves to emerge because of the fact that we do have quite high levels of vaccination in the population, so there may be a false sense of security for some time, and that’s our concern.’

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