A year of Covid in Northamptonshire

Tomorrow marks a year since the county’s first recorded coronavirus case.

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By Sarah Ward

Few could have imagined just what the first recorded case of coronavirus in Northamptonshire on March 3rd 2020 would be a precursor of.

One of the first recorded cases in the country (linked to a holiday to Italy), within weeks the whole country had gone into lockdown, as the Government ordered all residents to stay in doors to stop the virus spreading. Most children stopped going to school, shops pulled down the shutters and people could only go out for essential shopping, ordered to wear a face mask when doing so.

In early March television screens had shown us how European countries such as Italy and Spain were under siege from the virus, transmitting images of hospitals unable to cope as seriously ill patients cared for by doctors in protective clothing were being lined up in hospital corridors.

The UK watched in horror, dreading that the deadly virus would reap such havoc on our own shores. But then of course it did. To date there have been more than 123,000 deaths in the UK, with the vast majority of those in England.

The virus has marched across the globe, killing an estimated 2.5m people since the first recorded case in the Chinese province of Wuhan in November 2019. 

But one year into this pandemic, each continent, each country, each region, each town, each family has its own Covid story to tell. We take a look at Northamptonshire’s.

Lives lost

To date, Northamptonshire has tragically lost 1,335 residents to the virus. The first recorded county death was of Kettering father Craig Ruston on March 16 and since then the deaths have come day after day.

Last April (the first wave of the pandemic) was the deadliest month with 324 untimely deaths but the toll has also been high this January and February as the second wave came back with a vengeance after Christmas. Many have died in hospital, often without a loved one by their side.

More than 350 people have died in the county’s 248 care homes. At one point during the first wave of the virus (between March and August) a third of Northamptonshire’s care homes had outbreaks.

Problems with personal protective equipment shortages, a lack of a testing regime for the novel virus, staff and agency workers moving between care homes and a mass discharge of patients untested from the county’s two hospitals into care homes in April 2020 had contributed to the outbreaks.

Temple Court in Kettering saw as many as 16 residents die from the contagion in the space of just a few weeks in spring 2020. Kay Hunt’s husband Roy was one.

Kay said:

“I’m sure all the families who have lost their nan, or their mum or husband at Temple Court must be feeling very, very bitter. Nobody could say goodbye and that hurts.” 

Despite hoping lessons had been learned from the first outbreak, the virus is still today managing to make its way into care homes and infecting residents who have perhaps not crossed the threshold for almost a year or hugged a loved one.

Currently there are 17 outbreaks in Northamptonshire care homes involving 130 residents and staff. 

Hotspots

There have been 44,510 recorded cases of the virus in the county since the pandemic began, but Northamptonshire’s towns and their people have not fared equally from the virus. The urban areas have seen more cases, with the more affluent villages being less affected by the virus.

This is true of the picture seen across the country and in Northants where there have been significant deaths in a rural location it can often be traced to an outbreak in a care home setting. Research carried out this year by Imperial College London and Ipsos MORI has shown that deprivation has a part to play in the effect the virus has on people’s chances of contracting the potentially lethal disease.

According to the latest data the area with the most cases in the past 28 days is the Kingswood area of Corby (193 cases). This is the fourth most deprived area in the county and is one of the most disadvantaged in the county. Some have pointed to the number of House of Multiple Occupancy in the area, with people living in close proximity and being unable to easily self isolate if contracting Covid.

The nature of the industry in Corby has also been considered to have played a part in the high number of Covid cases.

Unlike the first lockdown in Spring/Summer 2020, during this current third lockdown non-essential manufacturers have been open which has meant that a significant number of Corby’s residents have had to go out to work and put themselves more at risk of the virus. A plea to the government from the council’s leader to look again at the guidelines has not been heeded and Corby’s Covid rates still remain one of the highest in the country.

Local governance

The local response to the pandemic has been handled by the Local Resilience Forum. A board made up of health, social care and local authority bosses, in the first phase of the pandemic the cell was at times assisted by the army. Military speed and coordination needed to be deployed in activities such as setting up a new temporary mortuary at the former waste recycling centre in Wollaston in anticipation of the increased numbers of deaths in the county.

The county’s director of public health Lucy Wightman has been a central figure in Northamptonshire’s fight against the virus. To date she has not imposed any local restrictions outside of the national rules and has followed the government line. Northampton, which had one of the county’s biggest outbreaks at the Greencore sandwich factory in August 2020 with almost 300 cases, was able to sidestep a local lockdown(along the lines of what Leicester has been under)  after it was argued the outbreak was contained.

The pandemic has had a huge effect on public services and all of Northamptonshire’s councils were given multi-million pound payments from the Government to help them to respond to the pandemic. Their revenues have been hit by the closure of leisure services and there is an anticipation that council finances will be impacted over the coming year as collection rates fall due to hard-hit households not being able to pay their local taxes. Demands for services such as adult social care have increased and new ways of working have to be adopted in order to keep both residents and workers safe from the virus.

Health services

Like most places the pandemic has put a huge strain on the county’s health services. At times the two already over stretched acute hospitals in Kettering and Northampton have had to cancel non urgent operations and there is now a growing backlog of operations and people who need treatment. The wellbeing of health workers has also been under huge strain since the pandemic began. Hospital staff have had to relentlessly care for residents who have been urgently brought in suffering from the effects of the virus.

The effect on their mental health has been huge and there are fears many may suffer from post traumatic stress when this ordeal is hopefully over.

Enforcement

A number of emergency laws brought in by the government over the course of the pandemic have needed to be policed locally.

From March to October 2020 there were 374 fixed penalty notices given to residents breaking lockdown laws by the county’s police force. A number of £10,000 fines have been handed out for people holding mass gatherings. (Whether or not they will be paid is uncertain).

Enforcement activities have in this third lockdown been stepped up significantly. Since January 1,517 fixed penalty fines have been given out to residents for a variety of rule breaches. 19 people who broke the lockdown rules and had a recent house party in Northampton were each given an £800 fine.

Community spirit

But despite the enormity of sadness and suffering the pandemic has brought to many in the county, there has been a huge community effort throughout, with some amazing acts of kindness and neighbourliness.

A volunteer network has been organised through the resilience forum and informal community networks have set up across the county delivering food packages, medicine and care to vulnerable, lonely and isolated residents.

Vaccinations

The news that a vaccine had been approved in late autumn, was a momentous day in the until then sombre timeline of coronavirus in the UK. Kettering born Sarah Gilbert was one of the lead scientists who headed up the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine programme, and her team’s efforts have been lauded across the world.

The first vaccinations began to be rolled out in Northamptonshire in December and to date more than 183,000 residents (around a quarter of the county) have received their vaccination. The county’s hospitals, GP networks and a roving team of vaccinators have been giving out the doses - with the over 80s and medically vulnerable being protected first.

However questions remain about the roll out of vaccination in the care homes. Up until last week a number of care home residents had still not received their vaccine. If there is an outbreak at a care home the vaccination team does not go into the home.

The present day

The second peak of the virus appears to now be tailing off, with less people contracting the virus and dying of it. Last Friday there were 134 Covid patients in the county’s two acute hospitals and 12 patients in intensive care . These patient numbers are much lower than in mid January.

It is also hoped the vaccine roll out programme will start to lessen the amount of people who become seriously ill with the virus. This third lockdown is due to end on March 29 when the stay at home rule ends and some activities can again resume.

However there are fears that some places where rates are not coming down as quickly may be stuck in lockdown, with Corby the prime candidate. The more transmissible Kent variant is prevalent in the town. The county is also now facing other variants of the disease, which may be less protected by the vaccine.

At a press conference last Friday the county’s director of public health Lucy Wightman looked back on the past twelve months and defended her comments made when the first Northamptonshire case was detected. She said risk to the public from Covid-19 was low.

“The risk was low,” she said.

“The problem was it was much more transmissible than we thought, people were broadly asymptomatic, particularly those who travelled abroad. They came back and didn’t know they even had it.

“And therefore by the time we recognised what we had on our hands and were able to undertake testing on a routine basis - which if you recall was mostly in a healthcare setting - we obviously had a very different picture on our hands, but that did not become apparent until April or May last year.”

Northamptonshire is now on the way out of this twelve months of coronavirus paralysis. But it remains to be seen what the long term effects will be on its people, its economy and its health services.