A quarter of a million rapid COVID-19 tests are set to have been carried out in Cumbria by the end of the month.
Cumbria’s director of public health, Colin Cox, has outlined that Cumbria County Council has planned for 250,000 rapid lateral flow tests to have been carried out by the end of March, as he confirms Government funding for rapid testing in Cumbria has been extended until at least June.
In a report prepared for the county council’s cabinet meeting on Thursday last week, Mr Cox explained that the authority’s community testing plan for the delivery of lateral flow COVID-19 tests, which can provide results in 30 minutes, is projected to have cost just over £2 million by March 31.
This will however be fully funded through a grant from the Government’s Department for Health and Social Care – and the Prime Minister has now confirmed funding will continue until at least June 30, when a further review will take place.
Cumbria’s lateral flow community testing programme, Mr Cox explained in his report for the county council’s leadership, is based on a “hybrid model” of testing employees in work settings and mass testing members of the public at community sites.
Mr Cox said that this model had been developed after the council conducted a rapid testing pilot scheme across 16 secondary schools in January, which tested just under 5,000 people and identified asymptomatic positive COVID-19 cases equating to 469 cases per 100,000 population.
Mass testing, Mr Cox added, was central to reopening society and the economy safely.
One additional aspect of the rapid testing programme that has been recently established is a rapid response lateral flow testing service, led by Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service.
“Trained lateral flow testing staff can attend an outbreak location or workplace within four hours to conduct urgent testing,” Mr Cox said.
“This service has been successfully deployed with positive feedback from those organisations involved and has helped reduce transmission and increase workplace confidence and morale.”
Mr Cox also briefed county council cabinet members on the latest progress across the county in the ongoing fight against COVID-19.
He wrote that good progress was being made towards achieving the mid-April target for offering the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone in Cumbria who falls into the national Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s first nine priority groups, which includes everyone aged 50 and over, and those aged 16 and over with underlying health conditions.
“At present vaccine supply remains the key limiting factor in the pace of the rollout both locally and nationally,” Mr Cox said.
“There is considerable international demand for all the vaccines that are now available and manufacturing capacity is still being expanded.
“This is compounded by much of the supply now needing to be utilised to give people their second dose. However manufacturing capacity is growing all the time and there remains every possibility of meeting the national target of the whole population having received at least one dose by July.”
At Thursday’s cabinet meeting, the county council’s leader Stewart Young noted that Cumbria will, like the rest of the UK, be affected by the recently announced issues relating to the supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine into the UK.
“Cumbria will be receiving reduced supplied of vaccine during April,” he said.
“It is likely that those will be focused on the second vaccinations so that the rollout of the first vaccinations beyond the nine priority groups, ie mainly to those under 50, is going to be delayed.
Mr Young said this was clearly very disappointing news, but he added that the council’ public health team, led by Colin Cox, will be working through the implications for the county.
Mr Young added that the reduction will mean a slowdown, but should not interfere with the county’s ability to meet the Government’s vaccination target for the top nine priority categories.
“Cumbria remains on track to meet the goal of offering vaccination to everyone in the nine priority groups before the middle of April,” Mr Young said, adding that more than 210,000 people across Cumbria have now had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which equates to more than half of all those eligible to receive it.
In terms of current infection rates, Mr Young said that at present, case rates in Cumbria appear to have stabilised at around 25 to 30 cases per 100,000 population per week, which is lower than the England average.
“Rates are currently below 20 in South Lakes and Eden,” he added.
“They’ve been falling particularly fast in older age groups, demonstrating the effectiveness both of the lockdown and of the vaccination programme.”
As national lockdown conditions begin to ease, Mr Young said Cumbria’s contact tracing teams in both the county and district councils, as well as the NHS will “continue to provide a first class response”.
He predicted that as lockdown restrictions ease in the coming months, we can expect to see localised outbreaks being a more prominent feature of what we’re dealing with, just as they were last summer.
Mr Cox said the test, trace and isolate system will remain at the heart of the COVID response, almost certainly for another 12 months.
“Overall”, Mr Young said, “the situation is undoubtedly improving, and Cumbria continues to respond to the pandemic robustly.
“However, I would urge people not to let this lead to complacency.
“We have to continue to be very cautious, and to keep transmission as low as possible, until vaccination rates are much higher, both to reduce there being a chance of a third wave, and to reduce the risk of new vaccine-resistant variants emerging.
“We are coming through this, but there’s still a lot to do to make sure that we do so as quickly as possible.”