Covid infection much more likely among crowds - PHA urges caution

Dr Gerry Waldron urges people not to become complacent in regard to social distancing in the coming weeks, when many protests and parades are expected. JOANNE SAVAGE reports

Keep 2m between you and those who are not members of your family or support bubble
Keep 2m between you and those who are not members of your family or support bubble

The Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging people to stick to key public health advice and exercise caution over the coming days and weeks, particularly with regards to social gatherings.

The organisation is keenly aware of a sharp increase in Covid cases emanating from a number of social events in North Down and East Belfast attended by young people last week, but with cases likely to follow in the next few weeks in South Belfast, Hillsborough, Comber, Bangor and the Ards Peninsula through previous and new social links, it is continuing to investigate the circumstances of such events and encouraging people to deploy control measures to mitigate spread. 

Dr Gerry Waldron, head of health protection at the PHA, said: “We really want people to continue to exercise caution and restraint to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

“It doesn’t really matter what the gathering is, or what the reason for it is, a parade, protest or visiting a restaurant or bar, you should practice social distancing, which is to say keeping a distance of 2m between you and those outside your family or bubble.”

The Delta variant is now the most dominant Covid strain and is 60 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha (or original Kent) version.

At the moment around 70 to 75 per cent of all Covid cases are of the Delta variant. This has moved quickly from a very small number of cases of this variant from just four or five weeks ago.

“We’ve been saying all along what people need to do to keep safe,” said Dr Waldron.

“If you are in a crowd, and someone in that crowd is a carrier of the Delta variant, there is a very high risk of transmission and as we move into the summer months the worry is that people become complacent in their zeal to enjoy all the things they could not do while full lockdown restrictions were in place. Many restrictions have been lifted but we are still not out of the woods.”

Given that the highly transmissible Delta variant is now most dominant, Dr Waldron is aware that some will be critical of the validity of the Executive’s move to lift restrictions, reopening indoor hospitality and so on, as it walks a tightrope between protecting public health and rejuvenating the economy.

He continued: ”Vaccination has certainly made things safer, but that does not mean that you should cease being careful.”

There is evidence that the Delta variant has been spreading throughout schools in England and somewhere along the line Dr Waldron feels that it could soon be the case that under 18s may also have to be vaccinated, not least because they do not understand and respect social distancing, but also because as carriers they can pass Covid on to those at home, parents, grandparents, and whoever else they come into contact with.

Dr Waldron said we are not yet in a position where we have enough information to be sure that it is safe to immunise under 18s, and while it remains rare for young people and children to become seriously ill or die on contracting Covid, it does happen, and we may yet arrive at the point where the vaccine will be offered to this demographic

He agrees that people, fed-up with over a year of lockdown restrictions, are perhaps more likely to throw caution to the wind over the summer months, heading off to packed beaches for days out or, as does seem to be a worrying trend across the province at the moment, attending gatherings, unregulated protests, demonstrations or parades against the NI protocol while forgetting the very real dangers of Covid transmissibility. 

“There are huge risks here. When the pubs reopened last time and people indicated that they were concerned, I would remind them that regulations are one thing and people’s behaviour is another.

“So I am asking people to exercise personal responsibility here and to make informed judgements about the situations they expose themselves to. As I have already indicated, it is immensely difficult to minimise the risk of transmissibility at any event or location where you have large crowds gathered.”

People have an individual responsibility to keep themselves safe, to practice social distancing, wear masks where possible, wash their hands or use hand-sanitiser, self-isolate where they test positive and exercise judgement on how they position themselves within large gatherings in order to delimit their risk of becoming infected by either Covid variant.

”If you walk into a crowded bar, you can make the decision to turn around and walk away.

“The onus is on you. Do you want to become a carrier of the virus and spread that risk on to loved ones or become very ill yourself? That is a decision that has ramifications for all of us as a society, so again I am bringing it back to personal responsibility and urging people that even as restrictions have lifted and the vaccination programme has made huge strides, the pandemic is not over, and this is not the time to become reckless in risking your own health and the health of others.”

If you decide to visit a beach on a sunny day and there are hundreds of people gathered, you should know that the risk of becoming infected by the Delta variant is very real and so you should be able to make that vital personal decision on whether to take that risk or spend your day in less crowded locales.

Currently, 80 per cent of the Northern Ireland population (excluding under 18s) have received at least one vaccination, while around 50 per cent of the population have had both vaccines, limiting the likelihood of contamination through the Delta or Alpha variants, but crucially not altogether eliminating such a possibility.

“If you have had both vaccines you have about 80% immunity against the Delta variant. But some people who have had both vaccines will still be susceptible both to Alpha and Delta variants of Covid. No vaccine can guarantee 100% immunity.

“This virus is behaving in the same way that every other virus is behaving, by mutating. That is what viruses do.”

Research into Covid mutations and the idea that new vaccines may have to be developed in response, is still at its early stages, but, again, the best defence we have now is ensuring that as many people as possible receive both doses of the Pzifer or AstraZeneca vaccine as well as doing all that we have already mentioned.
“If we see large numbers gathering or people abandoning public health advice, we could see a sharp increase in cases, so we all need to act with caution,” concluded Dr Waldron.

Northern Ireland’s vaccination centres are now offering first dose Pfizer jabs to people in all adult age groups – to everyone aged 18 and over. There are also mobile, walk-in and pop-up clinics in different locations.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride added: “Covid is still a very real threat and we need everyone to play their part in helping to stop the spread of the virus.

“Our advice remains the same – stick to guidelines and regulations; all adults aged 18 and over should get vaccinated; and, in particular, ensure you and your close contacts self-isolate if you test positive.”

He continued: “I would appeal to those organising or attending events, and to the venues hosting groups of people, to follow the current regulations and public health guidance.” 

If you have symptoms of coronavirus or have been identified as a close contact of a confirmed case, self-isolate and book a PCR test. Anyone who does test positive should use the new digital contract tracing option, as this is the quickest way to alert close contacts. 

For more information see www.pha.site/coronavirus.