Message from Deborah Harkins, Director of Public Health for Calderdale Council

Debs Harkins, Director Public Health

I want to take the opportunity to update you on what we know about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, what it means for Calderdale and the action being taken to delay the variant spreading.

The variant was first identified in Southern Africa and has been identified as a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organisation because it has several mutations that may affect how easily it spreads, the severity of the illness it causes and how well vaccines work against it.

At the moment we aren’t aware of any cases or suspected cases of the Omicron variant in Calderdale, but experience of earlier phases of the pandemic tells us that spread to all areas will be inevitable over time.

What is being done to delay the Omicron variant?
We don’t know much about the Omicron variant yet and it is important that we do all we can to delay its spread. This will give us time for research to be done to help us learn the best ways of preventing it spreading and causing serious illness.

That’s why the Government has responded by adding 10 countries to the red list(external link). As well as this, everyone who enters the country now must take a PCR test by the second day after they arrive, and self-isolate until they get the result. People who have been in the red list countries in the last two weeks are being contacted and required to take a PCR test. Contacts of those who test positive with a suspected case of the Omicron variant must self-isolate for 10 days, irrespective of their age or vaccination status. If Omicron is not suspected or confirmed, contacts who are fully vaccinated or under 18 and a half are not required to self-isolate currently.

At this stage, most of the management of confirmed and suspected cases will be led by our partners at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), and our role will be to support them. It may come to the point that the number of cases of the variant increase so much that UKHSA aren’t able to do all the contact tracing required and we will need to play more of a role in Calderdale. There may be situations where we need to ask schools, businesses, care settings and voluntary, community and faith organisations to help us with this.

You may remember that we have done this sort of enhanced contact tracing before in the early days of the Delta variant. Calderdale’s communities, schools and workplaces stepped up and played their part, and we did manage to slow the increase in cases for a few weeks. Learning from this experience is invaluable in helping us develop our plans for responding when the time comes.

How can we prevent the Omicron variant spreading and causing serious illness?
Wearing a face covering really works in reducing the way the virus spreads when we talk, cough and sneeze. Mandatory wearing of face coverings in a number of indoor settings was reintroduced on Tuesday 30 November 2021. Face coverings must be worn in shops, on public transport and in premises providing personal care (e.g. hairdressers) unless people are medically exempt. Details of all of the places where face coverings must be worn can be found here(external link).

Boosting immunity through vaccination is a really important way to prevent serious illness from COVID-19, so the vaccine programme has been expanded and accelerated to include a booster for everyone aged over 18 and second vaccine doses to children and young people aged 12 to 15 years.

In the meantime, while we learn more about Omicron, the things we need to do to prevent COVID-19 spreading and protect health and care services are the same as with all the other variants:

  • Get the vaccine (and booster) when you are invited, even if you’ve had COVID-19
  • Wear a mask when indoors in enclosed spaces
  • Try and keep your distance and limit mixing with people you don’t live with
  • Let plenty of fresh air in
  • Take a lateral flow test before mixing with others indoors
  • Isolate and get a PCR test if you have symptoms that might be COVID-19
  • Get the flu vaccine if you’re eligible

How can we enjoy the festive period?
After so long in restrictions, it’s understandable that we all want to enjoy ourselves and spend time with loved ones this winter break. We don’t know what the situation will be at the end of the month but I thought I’d share these really useful tips from our fantastic Community COVID Champions about enjoying our freedoms while we have them:

  • If you’re travelling with friends or relatives in the car, think about opening the windows to let fresh air in (even if it’s just a couple of inches). Think about wearing a mask for the journey.
  • If you are going out to meet friends, choose a pub or bar that isn’t too crowded and doesn’t have loud music so people don’t have to shout in each other’s faces.
  • If you’re going to an event, the theatre or cinema where there are lots of people, consider delaying seeing elderly or vulnerable family members until 10 days afterwards, and why not give hugs and kisses a miss.
  • Frequent handwashing is still as important as ever, not just to prevent COVID, but other winter bugs as well.

Is there anything to be cheerful about?

Before half-term we were seeing worryingly high COVID-19 rates in schools, with the virus spreading to adult family members and the wider community. This led to pressures on health and social care services. Following discussions with headteachers, we advised schools to consider putting additional public health measures in place. Since we issued the advice, we’ve seen a big reduction in cases, which has led to a significant increase in school attendance. There has also been a reduction in the number of people needing hospital care for serious illness caused by COVID-19, relieving pressure on local health and care services.

Calderdale now has the fourth lowest case rate in secondary school students of the 309 English local authorities and the eighth lowest in primary school aged students. There’s also been a reduction in the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital and pressures on health and care services have eased.

This is testament to our amazing school staff; parents, guardians and relatives, which includes many of you; and young people, who’ve worked so hard to prevent the virus spreading in schools and in our community. This week, we decided to keep the advice to schools in place until the start of the new term in January.

We should be proud of how far we’ve come. After 21 months we understand what we need to do to mitigate risks and look after each other and our communities.

Thanks so much for all your support this year. Although it’s been tough, the situation in Calderdale would have been so much worse without all your hard work and commitment.