One year on: COVID-19 in Cornwall

By Cameron Spencer |

31 January marked the anniversary of the first identified cases of COVID-19 in the UK. The same week, the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) as cases began to appear across the globe. By 23 March, Boris Johnson declared the first UK national lockdown, definitively marking the beginning of the as yet unending struggle to control the devastating effects of the virus in Britain and Northern Ireland.

As a region, rates of COVID-19 in Cornwall and the South West have generally remained lower than the national average. Around 12,000 cases have been reported in the Cornish authority since the start of the pandemic. In 2020, there were 257 deaths with this number rising above 300 after the Christmas spike. ONS statistics as of January 15th shows a death rate that is 8.7% higher than average for the early weeks of the year.

As cases climbed, hospitals faced increased levels of demand placing new strain on staff

SAGE have identified the South West as having an estimated R-rate of between 0.8 to 1.1, a decrease from 0.9 to 1.2 last week. The R-rate (reproduction) monitors the expected rate of secondary infection from one person, if the R is above one, the virus is increasing. Four months ago, Cornwall was placed in tier one, marking the region as one of the safest areas of the UK. Today, the R-rate is higher than the average in England, although it is following the national trend and beginning to fall as the effects of the third national lockdown take hold.   

The government has left the end date of the current lockdown open-ended. Johnson pledged to begin the reopening with schools as a priority, aiming to return to in person teaching by early March. This will likely indicate the beginning of the phasing in of important businesses and services and the removal of government restrictions.

Home-schooling has become an unwanted but necessary response to this phase of the pandemic as disruption to education continues due to school closures. The National Literacy Trust’s review of home learning has found widely negative effects on the mental health of both children and parents, as well as deep inequalities in the teaching children receive based on income and access to digital services, such as laptops and internet connection. The Department of Education has provided around 2,000 laptops to schools and Cornwall Council since September, although this is said to be far below the number requested. The Council is requesting donations to meet the shortfall.    

At the recommendation of The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, older people, care workers, frontline workers and other groups with a higher risk of contraction will receive vaccines first. Over 12 million people have already received one dose of the vaccine. The government hopes to vaccinate priority groups by the middle of February, all over-50s and those with underlying health conditions by April and the whole adult population by the autumn. 30,000 over-80s have received the vaccine in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

The vaccination process is underway with the first large vaccination sight being opened at Stithians Showground in late January and the second sight at the Royal Cornwall Showground near Wadebridge to opening in the first week of February. These sights will greatly increase the capacity and frequency of the vaccine rollout, adding to a number of other local vaccine services already functioning in Cornwall and the South West.

NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group, Volunteer Cornwall and Age UK are working to provide transport to vaccination sights. Recipients will be given a health check and a pre-vaccination assessment before the vaccine and then be observed for 15 minutes after the vaccine is administered.

‘We’re no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year in the spring, but rather the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed and together reclaim our lives’, said Boris Johnson as the Pfizer/NioNTech vaccine was approved | Pexels

The vaccine rollout will be a crucial aspect to the eventual defeat of the pandemic, already it has allowed elderly relatives to reunite with family members who have been forced to stay apart and with time, those with the highest chance of hospitalisation will avoid the symptoms of the virus, taking the strain of hospital services.

Scientists remain hopeful that a level of heard immunity can be achieved once a certain level of coverage is implemented. Viruses require different levels of vaccination frequency to achieve heard immunity. Measles requires 95%, polio requires 80%, but the effectiveness heard immunity for COVID-19 will remain undetermined until the efficacy of the vaccine is established over a longer period of time and mutant variants remain controlled by the inoculation. With a public which is widely immune and rare cases able to be better treated, the world can begin to rebuild and go back to something resembling normal.