Devon’s Covid battle a year on from the first lockdown

In retrospect, how much of our success in achieving a  low incidence of infection, hospitalisation and deaths, compared to the rest of the country, can be attributed to the responsible actions taken by a vulnerable and aged population? 

As Owl reported a year ago. The South West entered the pandemic with the oldest population (so highest expected mortality) and lowest number of critical care beds per head of population.

Owl also reported on the slow early decision taking by some local politicians, compared to MPs.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com 

It was exactly 12 months ago this evening when Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on our television screens and told us we had to stay at home.

After weeks of what seemed like purgatory as we saw country after country go into Lockdown, England was plunged into the most drastic restrictions on everyday life since the Second World War.

Schools had already been closed, clubs, cafes, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, bookies and gyms had already had to shut their doors from midnight, and sporting fixtures had already been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic

And then in the evening announcement, the Prime Minister announced the unprecedented lockdown measures in a dramatic night-time TV address, and for us to ‘stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives’.

In his speech, Brits were told we were only allowed out once a day to exercise – the first of what turned out to be many contradictions between the guidance and the law, which has never limited the amount and frequency of exercise – and there were only four reasons to leave home, when they were 13 when the legislation was put into place three days later.

And a year on, we are pretty much in the same position as we were on that fated day 12 months ago.

Clubs, cafes, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, non-essential retail, bookies and gyms are still closed, we are still told to stay at home except for a number of limited reasons, we are still working from home (and for some of us that sadly will be permanent)

There are still severe restrictions on our freedoms and our social activities, some industries have yet to reopen and won’t for several more months, and for much of the year, Devon’s streets have been emptied and its businesses shuttered, many families have lost loved ones.

Since the start of pandemic, across the county of Devon, 32,905 people have tested positive for Covid-19, and 1,033 people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test.

But despite the tragic toll that the last year has taken, it could have been so much worse.

Per population, at upper tier authority level, Plymouth has had the fewest deaths of anywhere in England, with Cornwall second, and Devon third. At lower tier level, the South Hams is the lowest, with West Devon second, North Devon third, Torridge fifth, Plymouth sixth, Exeter ninth and Mid Devon 10 th .

Tamerton Foilot, Teignmouth North, Barnstaple Sticklepath, and Dunkesewell, Upottery & Stockland have yet to see a death related to Covid-19 (as have Torpoint, Mid Saltash and the Isles of Scilly across the Tamar)

For cases, Devon has had the second lowest overall infection rate (with Cornwall the lowest), and Torbay third, and Plymouth sixth. At a lower tier level, Torridge has the lowest infection rate in England (and is the only place yet still in three figure for cases with 975), South Hams 2 nd , North Devon 3 rd , West Devon 4 th , Teignbridge 5 th , Cornwall 6 th , Mid Devon 7 th , and East Devon 9 th in the bottom ten.

Of the areas that have gone longest since recording a cluster of three or more cases, nine of the top 12 are in Devon, with one in Cornwall and one being the Isles of Scilly.

Woolacombe, Georgeham & Croyde, Salcombe, Malborough & Thurlestone and Hartland Coast have gone nine weeks without a cluster of cases, with Bow, Lapford & Yeoford, Barnstaple Pilton, Bratton Fleming, Goodleigh & Kings Heanton, Starcross & Exminster, Tedburn, Shillingford & Higher Ashton and Winkleigh & High Bickington going eight weeks.

And as of last Sunday, more than 250,000 people in Cornwall and 500,000 in Devon have had their first Covid-19 vaccine – 54.9% of adults in Cornwall and 52.1% of adults in Devon – 59.8% in East Devon, 42.2% in Exeter, 73.8% in Isles of Scilly, 52.6% in Mid Devon, 56.6% in North Devon, 46.5% in Plymouth, 56.4% in South Hams, 57.1% in Teignbridge, 58.2% in Torbay, 57.3% in Torridge and 60% in West Devon – numbers that will have risen over the last week.

Devon’s Director of Public Health Steve Brown has said that since the vaccination programme began, the numbers of people with coronavirus needing hospital treatment or dying have reduced significantly, but ‘no vaccine is one hundred per cent effective’

The latest research shows that the vaccine gives about an 80 per cent protection against needing treatment in hospital, and an 85 per cent protection from dying from coronavirus.

Mr Brown added: “There will still be people who catch coronavirus, and particularly those most vulnerable – the elderly and those who have clinical risk – who will potentially get coronavirus and still become seriously ill.

“We are going to continue to get small outbreaks in settings such as care homes, workplaces and schools. But whenever we get an outbreak, the response is quick and swift.

“Agencies (including Public Health Devon, Devon County Council, NHS Devon, Public Health England) come together. We look at how we can put in additional resources, such as additional staff or other appropriate resources, and we step up the cleaning regime for example.

“Such measures are designed to protect and safeguard those people in that setting, and to try to reduce any onward transmission.

“Even when you’ve been vaccinated, it’s still really important that you continue to adopt public health measures – stay at home. If you do need to go out, make sure that you keep social distancing, wear those face coverings when indoors in public spaces, and wash your hands regularly.”

And as the anniversary of the start of Lockdown 1 passes, the Local Democracy Reporting Service has taken a look back at the rise and fall around coronavirus in Devon over the last year, where we are now, and the roadmap back to normality that hopefully we occur this summer.

MARCH

On March 2, three weeks before Lockdown began, the first coronavirus cases in Devon were confirmed with cases at Churston Ferrers Grammar School. Galmpton Primary School and Collaton St Mary Primary School subsequently close, as does Berry Pomeroy Primary School.

Subsequently two positive cases from March 1 from Teignbridge residents were also discovered, although it is certain that Covid had hit the county in February, if not before.

Cases steadily increase in the county, with the first deaths from the virus being announced on March 20, before on March 23, in a televised address to the nation Prime Minister Boris Johnson tells all UK citizens to stay at home and protect the NHS and puts England into the first lockdown

APRIL

Throughout April, cases begin to rise, going from 154 as of March 31 to 855 by April 30, although the true number of cases is expecting to have been significantly higher as a result of the lack of testing that was being carried out.

MAY

As the effect of the lockdown continued, the number of cases in Devon being confirmed fell, with only 302 new positive cases in the month, although again, testing limitations means that the numbers were likely to have been much higher.

Starting in May 2020, the laws were slowly relaxed, as people were permitted to leave home for outdoor recreation from May 13 and to meet with one other person.

May also saw the first of many reports of ‘carnage’ and ‘gridlock’ as people flocked to the beaches, with the repeated fears that this would lead to a spike in infections – the same fears are still repeated almost a year on despite no evidence that any mass outdoor gathering has led to an increase in transmission.

JUNE

On June 1, the restriction on leaving home was replaced with a requirement to be at home overnight and people were permitted to meet outside with up to six people. Outdoor markets and car showrooms also reopened on this date, and all non-essential retail reopened on June 15.

The downward trend of cases being confirmed continues, with June 5 being the first date since the beginning of March where no positive cases within Devon were recorded, and by specimen date, there was not a single day where more than five cases across the county were recorded.

JULY

Most lockdown restrictions were lifted on July 4 as hospitality businesses were permitted to reopen. Gatherings up to thirty people were legally permitted, although the Government was still recommending people avoid gatherings larger than six.

There is a small rise in the number of cases that are confirmed in Devon – but just 62 cases were recorded in the month – and there was just a single death in Mid Devon in the month where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate

AUGUST

While the number of cases in Devon remain very low compared to the rest of the country and below the national average, the average number of cases being confirmed a day has risen from less than two at the start of August to six by the end.

Devon’s Director of Public Health, Dr Virginia Pearson, has said, adding the increase in numbers is largely due to Devon residents returning home from trips abroad, having contracted coronavirus infection while away on holiday.

SEPTEMBER

Schools return from the start of the month, and on September 14, England’s gathering restriction was tightened and people were once again prohibited from meeting more than six people socially. The new “rule of six” applied in both indoor and outdoor spaces, and eleven days later, pubs, bars and restaurants were told they had to shut between 10pm and 6am.

Cases continue to rise in Devon, as the virus begins to spread across the county again, with not all of the new cases linked to returning international travellers, which has been the pattern previously.

And by the end of month, cases had significantly risen, although mainly linked to students arriving at the University of Exeter.

OCTOBER

The month began with cases at the University continuing to rise – at one stage leading to Exeter having the seventh highest infection rate in England – but because it was concentrated around the Uni whose students were told not to mix, the area was not considered for a ‘local lockdown’

The following week, on October 14, the Government introduced a tier system and while much of the north of England was put into tougher restrictions, Devon wasn’t – it was in Tier 1 and continued pretty much as normal, with bars and restaurants open, sport being played, people meeting outdoors.

But the month ended with England being placed into a second national lockdown as a result of rising cases, which had filtered into deaths occurring in the county for the first time in nearly two months.

NOVEMBER

On November 5, national restrictions were reintroduced in England. During the second national lockdown non-essential high street businesses were closed, and people were prohibited from meeting those not in their support bubble inside. People could leave home to meet one person from outside their support bubble outside.

As the county endured its second national lockdown, infection rates initially rose from 88 per 100,000 at the start to 122 per 100,000 by the middle of the month, before falling to 77 per 100,000 at the end.

But as infections increased, the number of patients in hospital in Devon after a positive Covid-19 test rose to a higher number than at the peak of the pandemic.

As the lockdown ended, Devon was placed in Tier 2 – which allowed pubs and restaurants to reopen, but placed a ban on household mixing indoors

DECEMBER

On December 2, the tier system was reintroduced, with modifications, restrictions on hospitality businesses were stricter and most places where initially placed in tier two and three areas, including the whole of Devon.

On December 19, the Prime Minister announced that a new ‘tier four’ would be introduced following concerns about a rising number of coronavirus cases attributed to a new variant of the virus. The tier four rules were like the national lockdown rules imposed during the second national lockdown.

By the middle of the December, cases in Devon had begun to rise again, going back over the 100 per 100,000 threshold by December 14, and bar one day, has continued to rise since, ending the month at 163.6 per 100,000 population, and deaths hit levels in the county not seen since May.

The county briefly had a period in Tier 3, before England moved into its third national lockdown

But despite the doubling of cases in most areas, Devon ended 2020 with only Torbay and North East Lincolnshire having lower infection rates, and with its eight districts all in the bottom 16 of 315 in England, with Torridge having the lowest, West Devon 3 rd , North Devon 4 th , Teignbridge 5 th , East Devon 7 th , South Hams 8 th , Mid Devon 11 th and Exeter 16 th .

JANUARY

National restrictions were reintroduced for a third time on January 6. The rules during the third lockdown are more like the rules in the first lockdown. People are once again being told to “stay home”. Unlike during the second lockdown, leaving home for outdoor recreation is again banned.

January 7 saw Devon’s worst day for new cases being confirmed, with 626 added to the database, with nearly 10,000 coronavirus cases in the county confirmed in the month, with the week ending January 22 being the deadliest week of the pandemic, with 99 deaths in Devon occurring.

FEBRUARY

National restrictions remained throughout the month, but on February 22, Boris Johnson unveiled his roadmap out of lockdown, with the hope that all remaining legal limits on social contact could be dropped by June 21.

And as the vaccine rollout gathered pace, as well as the effects of the lockdown, cases and deaths in the county begun to plummet, with deaths more than halving in the space of the month, and the end of the month seeing the start of the week with the lowest number of confirmed cases since the end of September

MARCH

On March 8, the first step out of lockdown was taken, with the return of schools and the allowance that you can spend time in outdoor public spaces for recreation, rather than just for exercise.

Cases across Devon have generally continued to fall, with North Devon, Torridge, West Devon, the South Hams, and Teignbridge having the five lowest infection rates in England, all less than 10 cases per 100,000, with Devon’s infection rate of 18.6/100,000 (and falling) as low as it has been since mid-September.

On Sunday, just nine cases were confirmed in the Devon County Council area – the first time that has been in single figures since September 19.

THE ROADMAP OUT OF LOCKDOWN

MARCH 29

Outdoor gatherings (including in private gardens) of either 6 people (the Rule of 6) or 2 households will also be allowed, making it easier for friends and families to meet outside.

Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis and basketball courts, and open-air swimming pools, will also be allowed to reopen, and people will be able to take part in formally organised outdoor sports.

The ‘stay at home’ rule will end on March 29.

NOT BEFORE APRIL 12

Step 2 will see the opening of non-essential retail; personal care premises such as hairdressers and nail salons; and public buildings, including libraries and community centres.

Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms will also reopen (but only for use by people on their own or in household groups); as will most outdoor attractions and settings including outdoor hospitality venues, zoos, theme parks, and drive-in cinemas. Self-contained accommodation such as campsites and holiday lets, where indoor facilities are not shared with other households, can also reopen.

Hospitality venues will be allowed to serve people outdoors at Step 2 and there will be no need for customers to order a substantial meal with alcoholic drinks and no curfew, although customers must order, eat and drink while seated (‘table service’).

While funerals can continue with up to 30 mourners, the number of people able to attend weddings, receptions and commemorative events such as wakes will rise to 15.

NOT BEFORE MAY 17

Most legal restrictions on meeting others outdoors will be lifted – although gatherings of over 30 people will remain illegal. Indoors, the Rule of 6 or 2 households will apply.

As soon as possible and by no later than Step 3, the Government also plans update the advice on social distancing between friends and family, including hugging – although advice has been to social distance from anyone not in your household, it has never been law.

Indoor hospitality will reopen and other indoor locations to open up in Step 3 include indoor entertainment venues such as cinemas and children’s play areas; the rest of the accommodation sector, including hotels, hostels and B&Bs; and indoor adult group sports and exercise classes.

The government will also allow some larger performances and sporting events in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half-full (whichever is a lower number), and in outdoor venues with a capacity of 4,000 people or half-full (whichever is a lower number). In the largest outdoor seated venues, where crowds can be spread out, up to 10,000 people will be able to attend (or a quarter-full, whichever is lower).

Up to 30 people will be able to attend weddings, receptions and wakes, as well as funerals.

NOT BEFORE JUNE 21

The government will complete a review of social distancing and other long-term measures that have been put in place to cut transmission. This will inform decisions on the timing and circumstances under which the rules on 1 metre plus, the wearing of face coverings and other measures may be lifted. This will also inform guidance on working from home.

By Step 4, the government hopes to be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact and they hope to reopen remaining premises, including nightclubs, and ease the restrictions on large events and performances.