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Surge testing in Kingston: Interview with director of public health

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Amid a sharp rise in the numbers of new Covid-19 infections in Kingston, borough-wide surge testing was announced yesterday (Wednesday, June 9).

The Surrey Comet spoke with Kingston Council (RBK)’s Director of Public Health Iona Lidington about the coronavirus situation in the borough, the dangers of the highly infectious ‘Delta’ variant and what residents should do to help slow the spread of the virus.

What influenced the decision to bring in surge testing in the borough?

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We saw a fairly rapid increase in our rates since the beginning of May… that was thanks to the lockdown measures. And clearly since we’ve had more mixing our rates have bounced back quickly so that by the end of May they’d more than trebled.

Particularly we’ve had cases rising in our secondary schools and in our young people. We look at our data every day and in our 19-24 year-olds we can see the rates increasing very rapidly.

As cases continue to rise they get scrutiny at the national level and a discussion happened last week to say actually maybe we should be doing even more than just pop-ups in certain areas, maybe we should be doing a borough-wide approach.

That’s what launched (on Wednesday) with support from the NHS Test and Trace and the government. We’ve got more mobile testing units at Worcester Park station, for example, at Chessington World of Adventures, at the Kings Centre several days of the week as well as our regular testing sites.

We’re also working with our schools both secondary and primary schools, sending students tests for their households for anyone aged over 11 to try and pick up on any infection that we’ve got and get on top of it and supporting those households or bubbles to self-isolate because that’s really what we need to do to drive the rates back down again.

Alongside that we need to encourage vaccination uptakes. We’re doing pretty well in the borough and we’re encouraging young people aged 25 and over and similarly our older residents, to come and protect yourselves, protect your community and get vaccinated.

Kingston and Surbiton MP Ed Davey said on June 2 that surge vaccinations would also be coming in Kingston. What can you tell us about that?

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We’re working with our NHS colleagues on that who oversee the vaccine supply. We’re particularly looking at our more at-risk groups, so those over 50s getting their second doses, looking at ways to take the vaccine out to some of those communities who haven’t taken it up so far so doing pop-up surge vaccination and we’re working with the NHS on how and where we can do that. We’ll be doing that as soon as we get vaccine supply and vaccinators to the right locations.

We hope to introduce that in the coming days but we can’t be specific because it’s not entirely in our control when it comes to vaccines, and we’re working with our NHS colleagues on that to say that this area or group of the borough would benefit from surge vaccinations.

How many cases of the Delta variant have we had in Kingston so far?

We are seeing it as the dominant Covid variant in Kingston now, so the majority of our positive cases are the Delta variant, and it seems to be more transmissible. So that’s where those prevention messages about people washing their hands, still wearing face coverings where they need to, not giving up on that, and still keeping space and and fresh air. So whilst people can meet up as six people and up to two households, it’s better to meet outside and it’s helpful that the weather is as nice as it is now. If people are indoors, have windows and doors open to try and reduce the build-up of those vaccine particles. This is a communicable disease that spreads through those air droplets so the more we can dilute those the less transmission you will get.

One of the reasons to try and drive the infection rate down is that we know that the more people have the virus, the more replication of the virus there is, and the more chance you’ve got for a genetic mutation. And who knows when a future mutation might result in a strain of a type that is not so protective using our vaccines so that’s one of the reasons to drive infection rates down, to lower the risk of a mutation that means our vaccinations would be less effective. We’re trying to avoid that at all costs, we clearly don’t want to lose the ground that we’ve gained over the last many hard months of lockdown.

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That’s why testing, with one on three positive cases being asymptomatic, coming forward for testing just in cases you are one of those three, so then you can isolate and avoid transmission. That’s one of the key prongs we have alongside vaccinations.

How concerned are you about hospitalisations ticking up as a result of this outbreak?

I’m pleased to say that Kingston Hospital still currently have very low numbers of people with the virus, but we also know that it’s about a two-week lag between an increasing rate and an increase in hospitalisation. So given our rate, we potentially might not have seen the impact of that yet. But we are looking at other parts of the country that have had higher rates ahead of us, to sort of see what their hospitalisation rate is like. We still need more data on this, but they are certainly seeing fewer older cohorts of people being admitted, and that’s likely thanks to the protective effect of the vaccination.

We liaise with (the hospital) constantly to see what their pressures are like on them, and also with our community nursing staff as well, to work together as a team. But fortunately as of yet we aren’t seeing a rise in admissions or additional need for care. We need to make sure that continues and that’s partly why we’re doing the surge measures.

Are there any areas within the borough that are of more concern regarding the outbreak than others, or is it evenly spread?

We have seen parts of the borough with increasing rates. South of the borough has higher rates but similarly we’ve seen parts of New Malden for example with higher rates. We’re not a big borough. We have a lot of movement across the borough, (Kingston) town centre is a hub for transport and a destination, that’s why we’re looking borough-wide. But we’re making sure we have those pop-up sites in certain locations to make it easy for people to get a PCR test. You can see where your nearest testing site is on the RBK website. But we need everyone across the borough to come forward for their PCR testing.

How seriously in your opinion are people taking the dangers posed by coronavirus compared to a year ago?

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As we know the national road map is allowing more mixing, the restrictions are easing and clearly we all want to see a return to normality, but it’s doing it in a way that has the least impact and gives the best opportunity for the vaccine roll-out to happen.

Whilst younger people on the whole don’t seem to have such serious illness from Covid-19, they can still transmit it to other people who if they contracted the virus could get seriously ill, so that’s why we want to try and drive rates down. We don’t want to impact education for example. It’s why we want people to play their part with the testing and vaccinations because all of those steps mean we can return to normality more quickly. So having a bit more foresight, a bit more consideration for those prevention messages. If you’re meeting up, meeting up outside in crowded locations. Even just a few more weeks of being very mindful of that gives more people the chance to be vaccinated and reduces the risk. Asking people to think twice before meeting up with others.

So people might be meeting up because they can at the moment, but you’d encourage them to think carefully about that?

So for example the fact that you can have up to six people from two different households inside your house, actually it would be far better to meet in the garden or go for a walk outside and do it. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Stopping, thinking and making the most of the nice weather we’ve got. It’s actually that which can make the difference.

Are you behind extending the June 21 deadline for ending all restrictions?

Using the data is absolutely vital. Clearly we’ve got an upsurge in Kingston and we can see other London boroughs following similar trajectories but I think we need to look at it in a national way and when we hear an announcement on Monday (June 14) on that it will be driven by the data. But it’s not an inevitability. It’s down to everyone’s actions that make the difference on the rate. People should take it seriously because it is their actions that will make the difference on infection rates.

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