That was the message from the senior figures co-ordinating the county’s response to coronavirus as they prepare to enter the next phase of dealing with the pandemic.
Lancashire County Council’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, said that people should “enjoy” the forthcoming lockdown-lifting measures, while remaining “careful and cautious”.
He also warned that the county needed to work “doubly hard” to prevent a second spike in cases, because of a continued higher infection rate compared to many other parts of the country – and he appealed to everybody to “play their part and do it for Lancashire”.
Pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, places of worship, cinemas, libraries and museums are amongst the venues which can reopen their doors this Saturday – provided they have a plan in place to keep staff members and the public as safe as possible. Two households will also be permitted to meet indoors, beyond those which have already formed a so-called “support bubble” under previous rule changes.
County Hall’s chief executive, Angie Ridgwell, said it marked the start of Lancashire “learning to live with coronavirus” and bringing back some degree of normality to people’s lives.
“We don’t want people to be afraid to go out – in fact we would encourage them, but they need to do that knowing that the virus hasn’t gone away and they need to act responsibly.
“[That means] making sure that they [maintain] social distancing, take all the advice that is given to them about wearing facemasks and washing hands and do not go out if they’re infected,” said Ms. Ridgwell, who last week took over chairing the Lancashire Resilience Forum (LRF), the group of organisations tacking coronavirus in the county.
Latest figures show that in the week to 21st June, between 15 and 30 cases of Covid-19 were detected across the whole of Lancashire for every 100,000 people. It is not possible to discern whether that represents an improvement on the position at the end of May, when the statistics – from Public Health England – did not further break down case rates above that 26 level, which Lancashire was then shown as exceeding.
However, those figures are now graded up to 45 cases per 100,000 of the population and so Lancashire’s current infection rate means that it is no longer sitting in the top bracket on an England-wide heat map of that measure – it is now in the third tier of six. Daily case numbers and Covid-related deaths are also maintaining a downward trend.
Dr. Karunanithi said that public co-operation with the test and trace strategy to track down infected individuals and their contacts was – in addition to social distancing and hygiene – one of the keys to keeping the virus under control in Lancashire.
“We’re finding people go and get themselves tested, but don’t necessarily engage with the tracing part of it. This is an age-old tool – it works, but it needs participation and engagement,” he said, adding that Lancashire is hoping to be one of the early adopters of a scheme to ensure that test results can be turned around within 24 hours, rather than 48.
The county council’s public health boss also stressed that a two-metre social distance was still “valid from a virus transmission perspective”, in spite of the fact that the guidelines as of this weekend state that it can be reduced to one metre – when accompanied by other mitigating measures – for practical reasons in some settings.
If the precautionary steps taken along the road to easing the lockdown in Lancashire are shown to have been unsuccessful – or have not been adhered to sufficiently – Dr. Karunanithi expects that the effect will start to show in increased case numbers just around the time that schools are expected to fully reopen in September.
He also said that the winter flu season could prove another unwelcome pinch point – and urged people to pay closer attention to the annual flu jab message and the need to maintain other routine vaccinations.
“We need to really up our game [in that regard], especially in staff groups – because there is not much slack in capacity in NHS settings or the care sector if [other disease outbreaks] happen at the same time [as a second spike in Covid].”
However, Dr. Karunanithi said that he was hopeful that Lancashire could avoid the kind of localised lockdowns now being proposed in places like Leicester to quell further outbreaks.
“Our approach is much more of a graduated response – it starts with education and engagement and, where necessary, engineering measures to reduce transmission of the virus – and only when it’s really needed [would we] want to be closing down businesses and [other] settings.”
He also mused on why Covid may be proving tougher to tackle in Lancashire than elsewhere – apart from the fact that the county was slightly behind the national curve of the pandemic, causing local case numbers to remain higher for longer.
“It may also have exposed the general inequalities that existed between various parts of the country and Lancashire even in pre-Covid days. We bear a higher level of the ill health burden and that’s another reason why we think we are affected more than some other parts of the UK,” Dr. Karunanithi added.
That is one of the reasons why the county council now also wants to focus on bringing the local economy – as well as the population – back to health.
“Of course we want infrastructure investment – and the news about [the government’s £1bn school rebuilding programme] is really welcome,” said Angie Ridgwell.
“[Other] areas we would be particularly interested in, especially in the short term, are the tourism, leisure and hospitality industries, which are very important to Lancashire – as well as reinvigorating our towns and looking at some key sectors.”
Ms. Ridgwell has replaced Lancashire Police deputy chief constable Terry Woods as chair of the LRF, after he led the initial ‘response’ phase during the first three months of the crisis. He will now head a unit geared up to deal with any deterioration in Lancashire’s position in its continuing battle with coronavirus.
However, whatever the future backdrop, the focus will now remain a dual one – on health and the economy.
“We don’t expect to go back to an entirely response-focused [state], we will start running those elements in parallel – because it is crucial that we support our communities to get back to work and get out and live fuller lives.
“That is so important to their ongoing economic, physical and mental wellbeing,” said Ms Ridgwell.
But she warned that the county, like the country, faces “a long road ahead”.