Greater Manchester’s infection rate is falling at a significantly slower rate than across the nation despite lockdown, the latest figures have shown.
All 10 boroughs currently have a higher infection rate than England’s average, which stands at 119.5 in the week ending February 19.
Bury has had the biggest weekly rise of coronavirus cases of any area in England.
There were 444 positive cases in the week ending 19 February, 51 cases more than the previous seven-day period.
The borough has been experiencing a persistent increase in cases for more than a week and the infection rate is now 232 per 100,000 people.
Meanwhile, neighbouring borough Bolton has had one of the highest infection rates in the country for several weeks.
It is currently 222 cases per 100,000 although the rate has dropped around 14 per cent in a week.
Other boroughs – Tameside, Stockport, Wigan and Rochdale – have also seen the number of Covid-19 cases increase or level off from day-to-day during February.
The overall trend is that Greater Manchester’s infection rate continues to fall by around 8 per cent week by week.
But that is a lot slower than the national average for England, which has been falling by as much as 20 per cent each week.
Sharp drop in London but not in Greater Manchester
It means there are indications a gap is widening between the broader infection rate picture in our region, and other parts of the country.
London, for example, has seen a much sharper drop in positive covid cases in the past month.
As recently as 24 January, the capital had an infection rate of 448 cases per 100,00 people.
That was way above the national average of 355 at the time, while Greater Manchester’s boroughs were all below the same marker.
But in the month that followed, the pattern has changed quite dramatically.
By the end of January, the rate in London was matching Greater Manchester and now it has fallen to just 83 cases per 100,000 people.
The infection rate for our region is 178 and the national average is 119.
Here’s a graph that demonstrates what happened.
These numbers will be worrying for politicians and public health officials in Greater Manchester, although it is a picture that they have seen before.
Following the first national lockdown in 2020, there was a feeling that restrictions were lifted when London and the South saw infection levels drop while they were still high in northern cities.
Greater Manchester was among the first places to see new localised restrictions imposed last summer and they have remained ever since.
One official told the M.E.N last summer that they believed the region never really got through the first wave of coronavirus.
That was followed by a government report leaked to The Observer in September which concluded the virus remained endemic in parts of the north and that national lockdown had done little to reduce the level infection.
The research – based on detailed analysis of different local areas – suggested areas which combined severe deprivation, poor housing and large BAME communities were the hardest hit.
Responding to Bury’s recent spike in cases, Director of Public Health Lesley Jones called it ‘concerning’ and suggested the town’s proportion of essential workers as a potential factor.
It is believed Bury has a higher proportion of people working in essential jobs which mean they cannot work from home – meaning they are at higher risk – according to the health boss.
Bury has also been hit by the new and more infectious strain of the virus – first discovered in the South East just before Christmas.
The new variant of Covid-19 has quickly become the most common strain in the borough, and accounts for more than 95 per cent of its new cases as it spreads more quickly from person-to-person.
This could be stalling the borough’s progression toward a lower infection rate, says the local authority.
Lynn Donkin, Bolton’s assistant Director of Public Health, made a similar argument about the area’s high infection rate.
She told Manchester Evening News : “What I’m mindful of is that in Bolton and the North West more broadly, compared to other parts of the country, fewer people here are able to do their jobs from home.
“More people are in the sort of jobs where attendance at work is still allowed or they’re not able to do their jobs from home so they have to go in and be physically present.
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“What that means is we may be seeing more mixing and more contact happening compared to the rest of the country.”
And the Mayor Andy Burnham voiced the same concerns when the topic was raised at his press conference last week.
He said the region has a higher percentage of people who have had to stay at work than in semi-rural and rural areas in other parts of the country, and many of those people will return home to overcrowded housing.
“I think it’s very much related to work,” Mr Burnham concluded.
The return of local restrictions?
Regardless of what explains the stagnation in infection rate decline, the pressing question for Greater Manchester is whether it will lead to action by the government if it continues.
When the Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out his ‘roadmap’ out of national lockdown on Monday, he said it made sense to lift restrictions across England at the same time as infection rates were broadly similar.
However, as the M.E.N reported last night, while the hated ‘tiering’ system may have come to an end, the government hasn’t actually ruled out localised restrictions.
“We can’t rule out reimposing restrictions at a local or regional level,” Boris Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons before his evening press conference.
And in the 60-page roadmap document published by the government, it notes: “The government cannot rule out reimposing economic and social restrictions at a local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine.
“Where an area sees virus growth which could put the local NHS under unsustainable pressure, the government will also act swiftly.”
The current situation will spark fears that Greater Manchester could face the same kind of political fighting – both within the region and with government – that dragged on for much of the autumn.
Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, Tameside’s director of public health and president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said last week: “The question is are we [Greater Manchester] plateauing, are we hovering, or are we going back up?
“We don’t quite know yet, I think the trends are still emerging but if this is happening in lockdown we’d be really quite concerned about any easing of the measures.”