As Covid-19 infection rates continue to fall, many have wondered why local rates in West Yorkshire remain stubbornly high. According to Anna Hartley, director of public health for Wakefield, the nature of work in the region is the major driver of infection.
Interviewed on Monday on Radio 4’s Today programme, she agreed that infection rates in West Yorkshire remained “stubbornly high”, falling between 22 and 43 percent since the beginning of the year compared with an 83 percent fall in London.
“When we’ve looked at the data on that, around a quarter to a third of common exposures is the workplace. So West Yorkshire has more manufacturing jobs than anywhere else in the North of England and we also have very high percentages of small or medium-sized enterprises. Actually the cost of making adjustments within those businesses is really expensive to places that are already quite cash-strapped.
“We have no evidence that people have been breaking lockdown rules and we have teams going out into communities regularly to ensure that doesn’t happen. If you think about the difference between London and the South East where there’s a lot of white collar jobs, and people can work from home, and you can see that straightaway there’s those regional differences.”
In a meeting of Wakefield’s covid community champions on Wednesday, she cited the most recent figure of 23.6 percent of all the infections recorded in Wakefield as having been contracted in the workplace.
As the chart above shows, the numbers catching coronavirus in workplaces is double that of healthcare, where the general public might assume there’s a greater risk. Wakefield’s job market, weighted as it is in most of West Yorkshire on things like warehousing and light manufacturing, means that a greater proportion of people are unable to work from home.
Factor in the large numbers of agency staff who work in those sectors, meaning that enforcement of covid-safe practices is made more difficult, and it’s easy to see how infections spread so readily.
Wakefield also has two large prisons and an asylum-seeker hostel where conditions are favourable for rapid spread of the virus, and it is significant that these custodial institutions account for a similar proportion of cases.
These figures challenge a commonly held view that the higher numbers are down to people not observing lockdown or any perceived ineffectiveness of lockdown. Lest we forget, West Yorkshire has been in some sort of lockdown for ten of the 12 months of the Covid-19 crisis. Consequently, Anna Hartley argued against lifting coronavirus restrictions too quickly though she did agree with opening up schools, provided proper restrictions were in place.
“Numbers are much lower amongst that nought to 18 age group, and we’re fortunate that with covid we don’t see those poor outcomes in children and young people. It’s vital that we do the best that we can for children and that’s something else I’d like to see in the roadmap, an explicit recognition of the impact that it’s had on children and young people.
“So if you’re 45 it’s been a year of your life, one forty-fifth, but if you’re five, then a fifth of your life so far has been hugely impacted by covid. Particularly for early years as well which we don’t actually hear mentioned very much, but that nought to two age range particularly, educational experiences, going out and about, social contact, language, it’s very difficult to catch that up if you lose that.”
Wakefield residents are being urged to access the district’s three new lateral flow testing centres if they are in jobs where they are unable to work from home. Ideally, people should get tested twice a week, so as to prevent further infections. Wakefield’s three centres, for people who have no symptoms are:
- Wakefield College Main Site, Margaret Street
- Castleford, Holywell Lane
- Kinsley Community Centre
In addition, it’s important to stress that relaxations in restrictions need to be done cautiously and that social distancing, face-coverings and other measures will need to continue in order to limit the potential for new variants to develop in the community.