Message from Julia Burrows, Director of Public Health, Barnsley – 19 February 2021

We continue to see a slow reduction in the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases across the borough. The seven-day rate of new COVID-19 infections is around 177.8 per 100,000 people in the population – that’s approximately 59 new cases a day here in Barnsley.

Delving into local data

Like other local councils, Barnsley now has access to a range of information to help us better understand where new cases in the borough are, who is affected, and what might be driving transmission. 

We combine this with information about how people are living with COVID-19 in our communities, provided by members of the public and community teams who work in our neighbourhoods. 

We work with Barnsley health and care partners and our Public Health England (PHE) Health Protection Team, to closely monitor, analyse and report this information so that we can identify any patterns of infection that may need action.  

From this work, we know that most residents diagnosed with COVID-19 are working-aged adults - a similar picture to other places. This pattern reflects the ages of people living in Barnsley and has been consistent throughout the pandemic. 

Although we see daily fluctuations in the number of new cases in each neighbourhood, there are currently no areas of concern that have persistently different rates to others. We monitor this closely to find places or activities that may drive transmission so we can swiftly take local action. 

As some people need to travel for activities such as work, we also look at where people have visited, such as workplaces, education settings and shops, to help identify local outbreaks and act quickly to minimise spread. 

We currently have a number of small but controlled outbreaks being supported across the borough. There are no specific settings or locations that account for most cases in Barnsley, though we do have a relatively high proportion of people working in employment for which they need to leave their homes, or in roles that are public-facing.

Our community testing offer for people whose role means they cannot work from home is helping to identify those who may have COVID-19 but are not displaying symptoms, in order to prevent transmission.     

Although our local case rates continue to fall, it’s at a slower rate than other parts of the country, which is similar to many other places in northern England. A number of factors are likely to explain this.

In contrast to the south of England, Yorkshire has followed a different pattern of COVID-19 infections and restrictions in the last six months. 

We saw a peak in cases last autumn, when tighter regional restrictions were applied, and which stayed in place until national lockdown in January. 

At the start of this year, areas in the south of England had very high case rates driven by higher transmission from the new UK variant, in contrast to smaller numbers in Yorkshire. The fall in local rates since lockdown has therefore been from a different position in Yorkshire compared to other parts of the country.

Barnsley also remains more susceptible to COVID-19 than other parts of the country. For example, various factors related to deprivation in our borough are known to drive transmission, such as challenges regarding employment and income during isolation and crowded housing. In addition, Barnsley has identified extra cases recently through more testing, including those without symptoms who have to leave the house for work.  Winter weather has also affected when people have been tested, with a fall in testing rates during the snow and a subsequent rise after.  

All the information we use is vital to guide how we respond to COVID-19 locally and is most effective when shared with our local partners to help support Barnsley residents to live safely and well. 

Winter has brought extra challenges, including new variants of the coronavirus which are more easily spread, the cold weather and the fatigue we all feel after 12 months of living through a pandemic.

But we also have some very effective and simple ways to help control COVID-19 we can and should still all do, including handwashing, wearing face coverings in public and staying at least two metres away from people we don’t live with.  These basic measures work against all variants of the virus so are as important as ever.

We have a strong and dedicated intelligence team in Barnsley working across the council and the NHS that continually looks to enhance our understanding of what drives our local and regional rates, so our knowledge is continually improving.  I’d like to thank the team for their tireless work over the past year.

The impact of low income

We know from national data that infection rates remain lower for more affluent groups compared to those with low income.

Areas that experience more deprivation - including Barnsley - have higher and more persistent levels of infection. 

This is unjust but sadly not surprising. It’s much harder for people with low incomes to keep themselves safe. This is because they are more likely to be key workers and come into contact with people through their work, including working in the care sector where very close contact with people is part of the job. 

People on low incomes are more likely to live in more crowded environments; they are more likely to have to go shopping regularly due to an insecure income, rather than being able to do one weekly big shop. They are more likely to suffer existing poor health – sometimes as a result of industrial diseases. They may simply not be able to afford to isolate and may even have pressure from their employers to go into work if experiencing symptoms or a positive test result.

This is why we must make it easier for people to keep themselves and their communities safer and this includes better financial support for self-isolation. Barnsley Council has been doing as much as it can to support individuals and business, but I recognise more is needed and it is a frequent message we give to central government. 

Rules are clear for employers regarding the importance of staff isolating, and employers who force or allow staff to come to work when they should be self-isolating are liable for fines of up to £10,000.

I do recognise that employers are struggling – which is why the council again has done as much as it can to support local businesses.

Regardless of where we live or how much income we have, there are things we can all do to prevent the spread of this virus.

We can all regularly wash our hands especially when we arrive home and arrive at work.

Wearing a face covering in public places is absolutely crucial to protect ourselves and others.  If anyone can’t afford a face covering there are places you can get a free one, including some supermarkets. You can also make your own face covering.

If you have a medical reason for not being able to wear a face-covering for even a short time, then you should take extra care and responsibility to make sure you keep a two-metre distance from others when you are in public. 

Keeping at least a two-metre distance from everyone who isn’t a member of your household in our personal lives and in rest breaks at work is something everyone must do.

Vaccine rollout 

The rapid roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines will help protect our most vulnerable. Combined with the hands, face, space guidance, this will be one of the most important tools in reducing the number of new cases.  The NHS has done a brilliant job leading the vaccination programme.  Read Barnsley CCG’s update from Dr Nick Balac, local GP and chair of Barnsley CCG here.

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