Coronavirus vaccine, testing and volunteering

With increasing recognition that the world will be living with Covid and variants of coronavirus for months and years to come, many of you will have contributed to the work that we have been undertaking in Staffordshire County Council on what that means for ourselves, and for our communities and businesses. We are expanding that work to include partners in the public, private and third sectors to ensure that we are all considering the implications of how we adapt and return to some form of normality. Richard Harling and I will be presenting a brief summary to the West Midlands Chief Executives and Directors of Public Health this coming Friday. Hopefully their reflections will help us to develop it further.

Meanwhile, the Vaccination Programme has continued apace with almost a quarter of a million residents in Staffordshire receiving their first dose of the vaccine. It does feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We are pressing ahead with Workplace Testing for Staffordshire businesses; many of you will have experienced our own in-house version. I was tested last Wednesday, and had the (thankfully negative) result inside 30 minutes by text. We would like to see a slightly faster uptake in this programme, but there is a careful balance to be struck between compulsion and incentivisation; in Staffordshire we have consistently treated our residents with respect, and trusted in their common sense. It is likely that this is another activity that will become part of the ‘new normal’, and anything we can do to assist in our interactions with other organisations would be greatly appreciated. 

You will recall my publicising our iCount campaign at various times throughout the pandemic, asking for volunteers to assist in hospitals and call centres for contact tracing. As you know, hospital volunteers can get a Covid vaccine, which is hopefully a good incentive. I recognise that we are all tired and such requests are now so commonplace that they don’t have the effect that they had last April, but if you are able to help, please visit the Do It pages.

Feel Good Habits and Captain Sir Tom Moore

It’s been a tough year, possibly one of the toughest many of us have ever experienced. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to look after your physical and mental health and wellbeing. To support you, we’ve launched a campaign this week called Feel Good Habits. It’s all about small, everyday things you can do to improve your health and wellbeing at work. A core part of the campaign is our first ever Microsoft Sway publication.  Please take a moment to have a look at it and perhaps contribute if you have a particular experience that you think colleagues would benefit from reading about and hearing.  

Like many active and former service personnel, I use physical exercise to moderate my stress levels.  I’ve always come back from operational deployments much fitter than I went out, and, given the parallels of the past 12 months with my previous life, this one is no different.  I’ll get back to normal at some point, I’m sure, but at the moment, I’m fitter than I’ve been for over 10 years.  Conversations with loved ones, friends and colleagues are also hugely important to me, and I try to make a little more time for each conversation than I normally would, in order to find some time to talk about something other than the business in hand.  I try to make it less about off-loading my own worries, and more about sharing what they’re doing.  I find the very activity of listening to people talking about their lives puts things in perspective. 

I could not finish this entry without mentioning Captain Sir Tom Moore, who died on Tuesday of last week.  In the words of Prince Philip (who will also turn 100 later this year) describing members of the armed services, he was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things.  Sir Tom’s optimism and belief in the human spirit is encapsulated in the title of his book, “Tomorrow Will Be a Better Day”.  I particularly liked his instructions to his family for his own funeral; “March in. March out. Move on.”  There’s probably no better set of instructions to us in dealing with what is hopefully the final phase of this pandemic – let’s get on with the vaccination programme and get on with our lives. 

Dignity in Care Awards, Covid vaccination prioritisation and our new intranet

Our colleague, Charlotte Murphy, has been in touch to remind me that the Dignity in Care Awards are open for nominations for the 2021 round.  You will perhaps remember my plugging these awards in previous years, making the point that we are probably unique in recognising professional carers as well as volunteers.  In a year where care and carers have never had more public and media attention, this is our opportunity to say thank you to the profession of caring and to recognise those who go the extra mile.  I expect that the judging will be even harder than normal, but it’s a really nice problem to look forward to.

I was interested over the weekend at the news coverage and public reaction to Covid vaccination prioritisation, and particularly the news that council employees in other places have received their vaccinations from apparently left-over stocks.  

The UK took a risk in procuring large quantities early, and even more of a risk in launching the programme in December when the supply chains were not yet fully formed.  It very much looks like that risk is paying off, with the combination of the latest lockdown and vaccination programme reducing infection rates, hospital occupancy and deaths. 

You will recall that I have written before on the unfairness of Covid as a disease; the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, experts who understand risk better than anybody else in the world – they work out our insurance and pension rates for a living – have produced an analysis of effectiveness of the recommendations for prioritisation put forward by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).  At present, the vaccination programme is focused on preventable death – largely those in old age, of those who are clinically extremely vulnerable. I’ll let those of a curious nature read the paper, but it was interesting that a care home resident is 2,300 times more likely to die of this disease than somebody who is under 50 years old.  This is why, in Staffordshire, we are focusing our early efforts on the high-risk cohorts of elderly and those clinically vulnerable to the disease, particularly at a time when vaccine supplies are constrained.  Whilst I recognise that this is disappointing for some county council colleagues, and for other valuable front line services such as our emergency services and teachers, Staffordshire is at the head of the UK’s ambitious programme, with 143,000 of our county’s most vulnerable people vaccinated, well above the national average.  Whilst I cannot give you exact timescales, I can say with confidence that we’re doing everything we can to get as many people in the county vaccinated as soon as possible.      

Lastly in this lengthy blog entry, for which I apologise, we’ve got a new intranet coming, which will assist us in moving to the next phase of Smart Working, making all of our working lives easier.  It has built in Microsoft SharePoint, so it works alongside everything else we do in Microsoft 365.  It will be dove-tailed with our greater use of Teams, with the intranet content being relevant to all or most colleagues; information that is only relevant to certain groups of people will be stored in Teams.  We think our new intranet deserves a name.  Help us decide – vote for a name by Thursday 4 February. We’ll let you know the winning name in The Knot on that day.

Can you help our COVID response?

The headline news about the Covid Vaccination Programme is that the NHS vaccinated its 100,000th Staffordshire resident on 22 January, with 70% of care home residents and 60% of over-80s now having had their first injection. The rest of the care homes will have been covered this weekend. This is well ahead of the national rate, which is itself the leading rate among large nations worldwide. The importance of the phased approach to vaccinating sections of the population was brought home to me by a paper I read last week. Based on the evidence of the pandemic to date, one life is saved for every 20 care home residents vaccinated, compared with one every 160 over-80s, and one every 47,000 in the wider population.  With the UK taking the bold decision to go early with a mass vaccination programme, accepting that this brings supply chain constraints, it is vital to target the available vaccine at the people for whom it will have the greatest protective effect.  In essence, we are doing it in three phases: we are currently in Phase 1 where the aim is to save life; Phase 2 will protect those more likely to be hospitalised due to factors such as age, condition or employment: and Phase 3 will cover the wider population to allow society and the economy to return to normality.

Early in the pandemic, we asked for volunteers to help make sure critical services could continue in the face of rising Covid-19 cases. More than 700 of you volunteered for the iCount Campaign, which meant vital tasks, like caring for the vulnerable, could continue.  We’re calling on you again to help at this critical stage of the pandemic. The NHS will soon be rolling out mass vaccination centres in the county and is looking for our support to run the centres and to make sure priority groups get the vaccine. We also need support at our testing centres, and to identify and contact people in the care sector who are eligible for the vaccine.  Helping in these critical areas means we can test more people, make sure those who need vaccinations get them in good time and free up hospital staff with clinical experience to help in critical areas.  If you think you can spare some time to help, either inside or outside of work hours, please speak to your manager first and sign up to I Count.  For more information on the opportunities available, visit I Count on the Do It Staffordshire platform.

In closing this week, Wednesday marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Southern Poland in 1945, now marked as Holocaust Memorial Day.  It is of course a sombre time, commemorating an unimaginable crime, but in this sombre year, it helps me to remind myself that it was also the end of that nightmare.  I will reflect on our experience over the past year, and look to a brighter future. 

Coronavirus infection rates and the vaccination programme

Two weeks into the third lockdown, and we’re seeing a reduction in infection rates, as we would expect, some 20-25% inside a week. There’s a clear North-South split in rates, most probably caused by the spread of the more infectious variants from the Birmingham conurbation into South Staffordshire, Cannock Chase and East Staffordshire. Prison outbreaks continue to be a concern. Although there was discussion nationally about greater measures earlier in the week, we believe locally that the key is compliance with the current rules, rather than new, more severe measures.

The more encouraging news is the progress of the vaccination programme.  In addition to the national media covered Lichfield Cathedral centre opening up, the County Council is working with the NHS and Stoke-on-Trent City Council to accelerate the programme. We have submitted a plan to move even faster, and will be presenting it to the national programme director this week. It’s a robust, resilient and deliverable plan to increase the capacity of the programme locally. The quid pro quo from the national programme would be to ‘open up the taps’ as the vaccine supply improves in the coming weeks, and giving us the freedom to operate. 

Although detailed local statistics are hard to pin down in this rapidly moving operation, it’s clear that Staffordshire is already well ahead of the national and regional averages, and of course the UK is well ahead of other countries. Huge efforts are being made to ensure that the four vulnerable cohorts identified as priorities are vaccinated as quickly as possible. This is key when one considers that 88% of Covid deaths are in these four cohorts, and I was told this week by a senior NHS colleague that it’s estimated that one life is saved for every 20 care home residents vaccinated. Although there’s clearly no 100% certainty on the effectiveness of any vaccine, and the immunity takes up to three weeks to build up, one can understand the reasoning that lies behind the pace at which this operation is running, particularly when this week carried the sad news that, on some days, 1,500 deaths were being reported nationally.    

The coronavirus vaccines

Coronavirus continues to cause concern, with infection rates rising across Stoke and Staffordshire. We remain mainly below the England national average, but those areas bordering the Birmingham conurbation are seeing much higher rises than areas such as the Moorlands.  This would suggest that the new variants are spreading rapidly, and the combination of lockdown measures and Test and Trace are more important than ever.

The key focus this week is on accelerating the vaccination programme.  Stoke and Staffordshire are making good progress with the Pfizer vaccine. We have vaccinated 50,900 (of 128,700) of the first four cohorts identified by the Government – over 80’s, care home residents, health and care staff and clinically vulnerable. There’s another 17,000 planned for next week.  There are some areas of excellent practice such as the Stafford Primary Care Network (PCN) setting up its vaccination operation at the County Showground, where we previously ran a food distribution operation and training for iCount volunteers. They are using the large hall and the car parks to allow for a bigger service than would be expected using one of its practices. Consequently, they have vaccinated 4,180 people since the start of the programme, which is a great achievement.

We must, however, plan beyond the current challenges with the Pfizer vaccine, owing to its numbers and complex handling, and focus on full delivery of the Oxford AZ vaccine (and now we can add the Moderna vaccine to that list in the UK). We will need to see a rise from around 1,500 vaccinations per day to well over 10,000 if we are to meet the Government’s targets.  Three factors run in our favour: the Oxford AZ vaccine is more plentiful, The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have been able to reduce the Quality Assurance (QA) process from around 20 days to fpur; and its handling requirements are the same as existing vaccines, such as flu, which means we can expand existing supply chains before creating new ones.

The key to success is for the National level of the NHS to focus on getting the vaccine into the supply chain, and to leave local delivery to those who do it as a matter of course.  We have volunteered the services of Staffordshire County Council, so, all being well, we will be asking colleagues to take part in this vitally important national effort. I’ll keep you updated as we know more.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to you, your family and your friends. I don’t think many people are sad to see 2020 end. The toll of the pandemic has been unrelenting, both in terms of physical illness and loss of loved ones, but also mental health. It’s not over, and with the more virulent variant now spreading across the country, we are once again in Tier 4. It will be some months before the vaccination programme allows the measures to be lifted.

In Staffordshire County Council, we have managed to maintain a balance in every area for our residents and our colleagues, whether in supporting the vulnerable, maintaining our care homes, supplying personal protective equipment (PPE), supporting our schools, and more. We will continue working closely with communities, partners and individuals.

As importantly, we will plan for the return to normality, and do everything we can to ensure that it happens as quickly as possible. There are some positive experiences and learnings to be taken from our pandemic response, and we will use this to build back better.

The first, and probably most important, task for 2021 is to accelerate the vaccination programme. Two pieces of recent news make a change to how we move forward: the certification of the Oxford AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, and the decision to focus on the first injection, leaving the second until 3-4 months after the first, rather than the initial plan of 3 weeks. The AZ vaccine is much more plentiful than the Pfizer version and much easier to handle, as it only needs refrigeration and it can be broken down into smaller batches. The Government has set a target of the end of February for all residents to have had their first injection. That is highly ambitious, and will require a step-change in delivery.  Our task, working with NHS partners, is to achieve it.

In the meantime, please continue to look after yourselves and keep doing an excellent job.

More coronavirus restrictions

The Prime Minister’s announcement of more restrictive measures in response to the new variant of the virus certainly upset the enjoyment of watching Bill Bailey win Strictly. In essence, the new variant, which has been found predominantly in the South-East, is around 70% more transmissible than the previous version, leading to an increase of 0.4 in the R rate. The bottom line is that Tier 3 restrictions in these areas were not resulting in reductions in the infection rate. Indeed, Dr Richard Harling observed last week that the previous assumption that Tier 1 countermeasures resulted in increases, Tier 2 held it steady, and Tier 3 reduced it, were no longer valid. 

Although there is no change to our Tier 3 level in Staffordshire, we are of course included in the reduction in the “Christmas Window”, which will now only be open for Christmas Day, rather than the five days previously planned. I know that this will be bitterly disappointing for those of you who may have made plans to spend the Christmas period with friends and family, but a smaller Christmas really is a safer Christmas this year.

There is no indication yet that the new variant has reached Staffordshire or the Midlands, but the medical evidence suggests that it is detected by the current testing regime, and that it is no more serious an illness than the original version.  I am sure that urgent work is being done to confirm that the various vaccines will continue to be effective against this variant of the virus. 

Meanwhile, the vaccination programme is underway in Staffordshire, and the welcome news is that we appear to be ahead of other regions in terms of vaccinating people.  The first Interim Operating Capability (IOC) – if you will forgive a military planning term – is focused on the difficult-to-handle Pfizer vaccine and targeted at the most at-risk people in our communities – the elderly, care homes residents and health and care workers.  This will, in the New Year, switch to a Full Operating Capability (FOC) when the vaccine can be rolled out to the wider population, making best use of the easier-to-manage AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines which we expect to be certified for public use by the end of the year.   

I hope that you and your families enjoy a relaxing and healthy Christmas.    

The latest on coronavirus

The coronavirus infection rate continues to drop across Staffordshire, which is encouraging. But as Dr Richard Harling explained to me, isolated outbreaks have a disproportionate effect on statistics the lower the overall infection level. With 825 incidents currently open and being tracked, we are focusing our Lateral Flow Testing (LFT) on the 25 high risk hotspots, where we can have the maximum effect. You will hopefully have seen the successful deployment to Keele University to help their students return home safely.  

In the past few weeks, I’ve shared my thoughts on the continued improvement of our local Test and Trace programme, from how we use data to target local hotspots right through to support and enforcement where people test positive. We now have confirmation that Staffordshire has been selected for the Government’s Community Testing Programme which will see us prioritised within the supply chain for rapid tests and given assistance to develop our programme further. We have recruited, trained, and deployed 63 new rapid testers so far with another 27 in training; it’s a remarkable achievement and we will use the opportunity to the fullest extent that we can.  

The other major activity in the Covid response this week is the start of the Vaccination Programme, and I can certainly understand Matt Hancock’s emotion on camera when he was being interviewed. This is, almost certainly, our ticket out of this emergency, and will be the most important thing that we do in the next six months. We are working with the NHS to support the programme. At the moment, the focus is on the limited supply of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires a carefully managed “pull” supply chain. We are preparing for the greater supply of the easier to handle Oxford vaccine, among others, which will allow a “push” supply chain focused on maximising delivery through trusted places like Staffordshire GP surgeries and pharmacies. 

I will finish this week with something I found uplifting when I was walking in the dark on Friday morning to collect my newspaper.  A minibus taxi was collecting a boy in a wheelchair to take him to school.  Nothing exceptional at all in that observation, but the joy on the boy’s face at going to school, laughing and clapping, along with the happiness on his mother’s and the taxi driver’s faces, made my morning.  We arrange all of those services in Staffordshire County Council, and, while we focus on outcomes and budgets, it’s sometimes worth reminding ourselves why we’re doing this.  I hope you have a good week.    

COVID-19 vaccination and WeTalk

The main headline this week, after the disappointment of being placed in Tier 3 at the end of the national lockdown, is that the COVID-19 vaccination programme will start to roll out across the country from tomorrow (8 December). This is good news, especially for the most vulnerable in our communities, but it presents a significant logistical challenge for the NHS. To begin with, the hub in Staffordshire is at the Royal Stoke hospital and we expect limited supplies of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires special temperature-controlled handing. As more and more vaccination centres come online in the coming weeks and months, I’m keen that we do everything that we can to help with the programme. Nevertheless, it will be some time before the vaccine becomes available to the public at large, so we will not take the foot off the pedal on our outbreak control work and we will continue to encourage residents and businesses to follow the COVID-19 guidelines.

We are continuing to see a drop in Staffordshire’s infection rate, now below 200 per 100,000 across the county. This is an excellent result, given the rate was well above 400 only just over two weeks ago.  Stoke’s rate remains the highest in the West Midlands despite all of the efforts of the City Council, and we remain in close cooperation with them on all major aspects of the response, such as Lateral Flow Testing (LFT) and support to children in receipt of free school meals. 

Another area of development this week is the County Council leading the effort to get Keele University students home safely for Christmas through the use of Lateral Flow Testing (LFT).  Our programme rolling out LFT is developing as we learn by doing, as well as from others’ experience.  

As we approach the end of a very unusual year, can I also give a slight push for WeTalk, our programme to have better conversations between colleagues, about performance, but also more widely about wellbeing, expectations, aspirations and just generally having a conversation. What better time than the run-up to Christmas and the reflections that accompany the end of the year to have a catch-up with members of your team?  If you need a brush-up on the techniques and tools, the video which we made is a good start, as is the WeTalk intranet page which contains all the details.  After a year like this, we’ve all got lots to catch up on, and this year we won’t have the informality of the Christmas party to tell the boss what you really wanted to say!