30% of North East covid cases are from new faster-spreading mutant strain, says health chief

Almost a third of Covid cases in the North East are now thought to be from the new, faster-spreading strain of the virus, a regional health chief has said.
A covid testing centre in the North EastA covid testing centre in the North East
A covid testing centre in the North East

The more infectious variant of coronavirus accounts for roughly 30% of positive tests across the region, according to public health officials – though its emergence in the North East is linked to specific outbreaks rather than being evenly distributed.

The figure was confirmed by Prof Eugene Milne, Newcastle City Council’s public health director, on the day that the nation went into a third national lockdown.

Prof Eugene Milne, director of public health, Newcastle City CouncilProf Eugene Milne, director of public health, Newcastle City Council
Prof Eugene Milne, director of public health, Newcastle City Council
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While the new variant is not as prevalent here as in the South East or in areas like Cumbria, where it has been identified as responsible for more than 75% of cases, Prof Milne said that it and the impact of families mixing at Christmas mean that infection rates here will continue to escalate.

According to latest figures released by Prof Milne’s authority on Tuesday, the infection rate in the North East is currently 417 new weekly cases per 100,000 people – a massive jump from pre-Christmas numbers.

Prof Milne said: “We broadly think that about 30% of the cases in the region at the moment are from the new variant. But it varies from place to place, I don’t think it is an even distribution.

“I think that represents a blotchy, patchy distribution where we have some specific outbreaks.”

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The new strain of the virus is thought to be up to 70% more contagious, though experts say there is no evidence of it being more deadly than the previous variant.

He added: “We have seen rates of Covid really accelerate very fast in the South East and London, in the East of England. We have seen that spread to the Midlands, we have seen parts of Cumbria taking off in the same kind of way.

“And we know that the new variant of Covid is present in our region and I would say we are seeing the effects of that coming through, although we are still in a better position than those other regions. It is essential that action is taken now to curtail this.”

The public health chief added that he thought the country was “a bit ahead of the curve” in imposing the national lockdown now, but would have preferred to “avoid some of the anxiety that was caused around schools opening” on Monday.

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Prof Milne also warned that around 15% of Covid tests in the North East are returning positive results, compared to just 0.5% last summer, and that current infection rates are probably even higher than current numbers show.

He said: “I would be surprised if they [infection rates] didn’t carry on rising for a while longer because we are seeing the impact of Christmas mixing coming through.

“It is no coincidence that the case numbers on December 29 really shot up. A thing that is troubling me is that the positive test rate we are seeing coming through is really quite high.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the third lockdown on Monday night, with the restrictions due to be in place until mid-February.

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The lockdown means that schools are shut for all but children of key workers and vulnerable children, while people must stay inside their home other than for a limited set of essential reasons.

Prof Milne said that the nation’s “overriding priority” to get out of lockdown must be delivering vaccines to the most vulnerable.

He added: “People need to cling on to the feeling that the darkest hour is the one before the dawn.

“It is going to be tough. We always knew winter was going to be difficult.

“There are some aspects that have turned out not to be as bad as we thought they would be, for example the measures that are effective against Covid have also been effective against the spread of flu.

“We are seeing much less of that than we would normally see, so that is a bonus. Earlier in the year we feared that we would be tackling both a flu epidemic and Covid at the same time, and that turns out not to be the case.

“We do need to stick with this, bearing in mind that because the new variant is more infective even though its consequences individually don’t seem to be any different. We really need to be rigorous about those measures to prevent its spread while we get towards that light at the end of the tunnel, which is the widespread distribution of vaccines.”