Corby’s Covid Crisis

Industry, deprivation and the Kent variant of the virus are all playing a part in Corby's Covid crisis

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By Sarah Ward

Corby has the second highest Covid case rates in the country behind neighbouring Rutland. 

While the rates have dropped from an all time high of 921.9 cases per 100,000 in the week to January 10, they are not dropping as quickly as elsewhere in the county and are still well above the national average, standing at 444.5 cases per 100,000 people on February 4.

Since the pandemic began there have been 4,450 recorded cases of the virus in the town and tragically 115 Corby residents have died from the virus ( until February 7).

Corby’s second spike, following a more moderate first spike in late summer, began in late December, early January, when the number of cases went through the roof in a matter of days. 

The town now has the sword of Damocles hanging over its head, with the council’s leader and public health director warning residents that if case rates don’t come down then Corby may not be allowed to come out of the current third lockdown when the rest of the country does (at an as yet unknown date in the future).

The council’s leader Tom Beattie says ‘it is a worrying situation’ and has pointed to the town’s manufacturing industry as a factor in the high case rate.

Community transmission and the virus being passed among households is the reason given by the county’s director of public health Lucy Wightman for Corby’s Covid problems along with more of the population having to put itself at risk by the nature of the work they do.

The town’s MP Tom Pursglove is arguing that Corby must have mass testing, along the lines of what was trialled in Liverpool in November, in order to find out who has the virus and to stop the spread.

As has been the case with almost every aspect of this Covid-19 pandemic, there is much uncertainty about the exact causes of the situation, but there are various factors that have put Corby in the unenviable position of being a current Covid-19 hotspot.

Industry

Currently there are three workplace outbreaks recorded in Corby, which is half of the outbreaks in the county. The policy of Northamptonshire’s public health team is not to make public the location of the outbreak, with an exception being the huge outbreak at sandwich maker Greencore in Northampton.

The council’s Labour leader Tom Beattie is clear the town’s manufacturing and warehousing industry is a factor in its Covid-19 woes as due to the nature of their work, many thousands of people cannot do their jobs from home and must go into the workplace, therefore exposing themselves to more risk.

Last month Cllr Beattie lobbied the government, sending a letter to the Prime Minister to ask that non essential manufacturing companies be shut down to protect workers from the virus as he did not think lockdown regulations were giving adequate protection to workers in this sector.

He wrote:

“Whilst I appreciate there is an economic interest to keeping the businesses running, I do not consider that argument outweighs the risk to those residents’ lives, when options such as furlough are available and further business support could be made available to those impacted.”

However his calls have fallen on deaf ears and there has not been a review of regulation, a situation which has left him extremely disappointed.

After talks in January with government health bosses involving the town’s Conservative MP Tom Pursglove, it was said that a government task force was on its way. That has not happened and the cabinet office made it clear staff would not be travelling to the town. Tom Pursglove says he is still awaiting to hear from ministers whether there will be any action in this area. What he is lobbying for now is mass testing of the Corby’s residents. He said:

“Increasing testing could well be a part of the answer to drive down figures. I think we should look at every option. I have made that case to the secretary of state. That is something he is looking at.” However the director of public health Lucy Wightman is not backing the mass testing of Corby’s population saying at Friday’s press conference that she doesn’t think it is needed due to the testing capacity already in the town.

As to whether all employers are sticking to the Covid secure guidelines - there have been various complaints and accusations over the past few months from the Corby workforce.

Tom Pursglove says he does not ‘want to get into an argument with local employers’ as his experience is so many have followed the rules, but he says where there are instances of repeat infection the ‘company should be closed’.

However despite this stance he said:

“The figures seem to suggest the vast majority of this transmission is household transmission.”

Household transmission would suggest that people in Corby are not following the rules as they should be.

However this transmission data is not publicly available for scrutiny outside of health and local organisation settings, so it is not possible for the media or residents to take a look and see for themselves where the transmission is occurring.

Deprivation

Corby’s current case rate is in stark contrast to that of the more affluent area of South Northants.

Latest deprivation data for 2019 had South Northants ranked 312 out of 319 local authorities, compared to Corby sitting at 70, the lowest ranking in the county.

The most deprived area of Corby, Kingswood, is currently the area with the highest Covid infection rates. There were 328 cases in the Kingswood area in the 28 days to January 31, making the area the second most affected area in the county at that time behind the Upton and Hunsbury area of Northampton. This equates to a case rate of a colossal 3,014 cases per 100,000 people.

The area, which has for decades been plagued by crime and poverty, also now has a large number of homes of multiple occupancy (HMO) with many of the former local authority three-storey houses being converted into places for a number of families to live.

Corby resident and health campaigner Lyn Buckingham thinks the HMOs could be a factor in the area being a Covid hotspot. She said:

“It is the area in the town with the most HMOs and has a lot of people who will have to go out to work. If you live in a HMO of course it is not going to be as easy to self isolate and keep your distance from others. There is no easy answer.”

The Office of National Statistics analysis from the first lockdown found a link between deprivation and cases of the virus. When the pandemic is over and possible investigations begin, it may become clearer which parts of the county have been most affected by the virus and whether deprivation has been a key factor in the case rate.

Kent variant

The variant of the virus, which was first detected in Kent in September, is now realised to be more contagious and more likely to lead to death than the original Covid-19 strain.

Lucy Wightman said at a press conference on Friday that the Kent variant of the virus is  widespread in Corby, revealed by the genome sequence testing sampling that is being carried out by the government.

“Corby currently has the highest percentage of its sample that is sent off for this type of testing that identifies the likely presence of the Kent gene out of all those areas listed on the chief medical officers watchlist and that’s part of the challenge. So we have a population at greater risk because more of them have to present to work than in a lot of other areas and then we’ve also got within that population of those identified as having Covid a very high percentage of them being that Kent variant.”

Lucy Wightman said to date Northamptonshire does not have any confirmed cases of the South African variant, or any cases under investigation.

Surge testing capacity is being set up in areas of the country where this South African variant has been found.

Action being taken

Corby has had a testing centre in the town since the first spike in late summer and last month a rapid result test centre opened at the town’s Lodge Park Sports Centre.

An eight-page booklet giving messages about adhering to the lockdown guidelines and obeying the social distancing rules will drop onto each doormat in the town this week. Northants Police has also been carrying out extra patrols in the town at the weekends, with the country parks and meet up areas being regularly monitored.

People who have been told by the NHS track and trace system may also be able to claim a £500 payment to help them self isolate. 

Corby Council, which processes the benefit,  has been contacted by NN Journal to ask how many residents have applied for and how many have received the payment.


We also though we’d share today this fascinating Twitter thread from University of Northampton lecturer Kate Ironside about the anniversary of decimalisation and her father’s role in designing the new coins. The memories include her mother posing as Britannia.