David Regan, Manchester’s Director of Public Health explains the role of Covid testing data and postcode analysis, early warning systems and the approach to preventing outbreaks of the virus.
What’s Manchester’s current position on the number of Covid cases?
As Director of Public Health, I get a daily update from national teams of the number of positive cases in Manchester, along with a weekly update on postcode details of where those people are who test positive. I also get the details recorded by our Manchester teams involved in Test and Trace.
We are still seeing a small number of positive cases in Manchester each day, but the number remains relatively stable at the moment.
To give more context, Manchester is currently eighth lowest of the 10 Greater Manchester boroughs based on the total number of positive cases for population size*. However, that doesn’t mean we can be complacent, because we are still dealing with a pandemic where the situation can change quickly if people don’t follow advice.
What happens if the number of positive cases starts to rise?
If those positive test figures increase significantly we would be informed of that by the data on the Dashboard from NHS Digital we now receive – and we would then also be able to look at weekly postcode data to assess where the numbers relate to and what it means. For example we would be able to see from that local detail if the numbers related to a business, school or care home – or if they are separate cases on a particular street.
This isn’t a new approach – it’s tried and tested – and it’s how we have dealt with diseases like Hepatitis or TB in the past.
If we thought a school or supermarket had an outbreak in a certain place we would look at that information and work with neighbourhood leads and councillors to get messages out to people very quickly to inform them about what was happening.
Those messages would reinforce good public health advice on hand hygiene, social distancing asking people to follow guidance from the NHS Test and Trace service around self-isolating. And, ultimately the Test and Trace approach is how we will contain the disease in the city.
If transmissions rates then changed significantly we would work with the rest of Greater Manchester and central government before taking any major decisions. That broader regional view is really important when you consider issues like 10 per cent of people registered with our GPs are from outside the area. Likewise for schools and hospital catchment areas.
Could we be the next Leicester?
In Leicester’s case the city didn’t have all the information that I now have to make decisions on, based on number of new cases and monitoring trends.
Unlike Leicester we would be alerted to any changing situation quickly via the daily numbers of positive cases and the weekly postcode data. However, I, like other directors of public health want to have that postcode information on a daily basis too.
In addition, we are also developing our own Manchester version of an early warning system which will be ready next week. Manchester needs its own version to reflect its own situation as a large city centre, with a transport hub and a lot of retail and hospitality industry, along with a large and diverse population.
This warning system brings together all the data we now receive to produce maps that show rates across the city and what that means. It’s about understanding the context of numbers and understanding if they are in certain settings– which can account for high numbers – or if they are spread across the community.
How does the NHS Test and Trace service help?
Without doubt, this is how we will beat the disease and keep it under control. It cannot be underestimated how important getting a test is if you think you have Covid-19 symptoms, or alternatively self-isolating if you find you have been in contact with someone who tested positive.
That’s also why it’s really important that people keep their own diaries of where they have been – and at what time – so they can help the service.
Contact tracing is for the greater good to protect us all. NHS Test and Trace will not pass individual personal details between contacts. It will operate on a trust basis and the Test and Trace team will help each individual to understand what it means to them and whether or not they need to self-isolate.
We are also asking places like libraries, pubs and restaurants to record people’s details – which would then be destroyed after 21 days – to help with this process. So, if I was in a restaurant where it found that someone then tested positive, the restaurant would be able to help the tracing service by saying who could have been in close contact. That doesn’t mean that everyone who was there that night would have to self-isolate – but it does mean that there would be a proportionate, safety-first approach.
How likely is a second wave of the pandemic?
To answer this we need to look back at other pandemics like Spanish flu and Swine flu where we know there were second waves. However, it’s the size of the wave – or waves - that’s important. We have to keep them as small as possible to protect lives and also to make sure our health and social care services don’t become overwhelmed.
If we all follow the rules we can keep our economy and schools open while functioning effectively – and avoiding another 12-week lockdown situation. I am going out this weekend for a meal – but I will be following strict social distancing, giving my details to the restaurant and I will also keep my own personal diary on my phone.
Is flu season going to make it harder to deal with the pandemic?
Autumn and winter are when we always see a rise in illness like flu and norovirus and we have to be prepared for that too. Covid-19 is a new virus and it’s going to be difficult to predict. However, we do absolutely know that testing and tracing works very effectively – and that is how we will contain the disease.
What’s your message to Manchester?
Thank you to everyone who lives and works in our great city for all you have done to date to help during the pandemic. Please keep following the guidance - because we can all tackle this together.
Notes to Editors
* This is based on the number of individual people who are Covid positive per population size.