45.1. The Committee considered a report on the NHS response to COVID-19 in East Sussex and its ongoing impact on NHS services for East Sussex residents. The Committee also considered a presentation by Darrell Gale, Director of Public Health, on the current number of infections in East Sussex.
45.2. The Committee asked whether there were any issues with capacity for the vaccine programme as people’s second jabs begin.
45.3. Jessica Britton said that the local vaccine programme is on target to meet and in some cases exceed the national targets. The Executive Director said she is confident the current logistical set up will enable both first jabs and second jabs to take place in the coming weeks.
45.4. The Committee asked whether the big difference in the death rate of the two waves may be in part due to less observation of the lockdown in the second wave.
45.5. Darrell Gale said there had certainly been different behaviours between the lockdowns. The first lockdown was almost universally observed by people and people had been reluctant to travel to the coast, in part due to the early closure of activities by the local authorities. People, however, were far more reticent to go in to or observe the November lockdown. In addition, many employers had to stop trading in March but by the time of the second lockdown in November, a lot more businesses were open and requiring staff to go in.
45.6. Darrell Gale added that the virology of the second variant was so different to the first that it was almost like a new pandemic with a much higher transmission rate and higher mortality rate. Consequently, whilst the second lockdown did slow down the increase in cases from the original variant of the virus, the third lockdown over Christmas was in response to the new Kent variant but came too late to stop it. The third lockdown is also the predominant cause of the decline in infections currently being observed. This is because the vaccine is having an impact on hospitals and deaths nationally, but the numbers are too small to be able to see a definitive local trend.
45.7. The Director of Public Health said he had been hearing anecdotally about a large numbers of visitors to the coast in the recent warmer weather. He reminded everyone that the country is still in lockdown, so people are required to stay at home and only travel locally for essential supplies and exercise.
45.8. The Committee asked what the figures for uptake of the vaccine are in the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community and how authorities planned to improve uptake amongst BAME residents.
45.9. Darrell Gale said the figures nationally showed a poorer uptake in certain communities, particularly amongst the Black African community. The data shows who has had the vaccine, but it takes a while to work out who has not and this task is more difficult where a population is small. The BAME population in East Sussex is quite small and spread out, so it is currently difficult to determine the vaccine uptake rates.
45.10. Darrell Gale explained that the Public Health Team will continue the work of the BAME disparities programme that was established to identify and understand why there was a greater impact from the disease on BAME communities. This programme involved identifying and speaking with BAME community leaders to understand the questions and queries they have relating to the disease, testing and uptake of testing. This will be expanded to include reassurance about the vaccine.
45.11. The Committee asked whether there were any groups other than BAME communities who have had a general reluctance to receive the vaccine
45.12. Darrell Gale said non-BAME communities who may show reluctance are likely to be educational or religious groups. There has been a good overall uptake in East Sussex, although a lower uptake in Brighton & Hove, where alternative belief systems are more prevalent. The Public Health Team will still try to work with them to encourage uptake of the vaccination. He added it was equally important to ensure there was no inequality in the uptake of the vaccine being caused by the difficulties some groups may have in accessing vaccine sites.
45.13. The Committee asked whether anything will be done to improve the experience of those with learning disabilities or autism who are being vaccinated.
45.14. Jessica Britton said the CCG was working with vaccine champions, carers, and voluntary and community organisations in Sussex to help make it easier for those who are hesitant or who find it more difficult to attend vaccine centres to receive the vaccine, which includes those with learning disabilities or autism. Further details can be provided at a future meeting of the HOSC.
45.15. The Committee asked whether teachers should receive vaccine as a higher priority group.
45.16. Darrel Gale agreed that teachers are frontline staff, but a vaccination order was agreed by the Government, under the advice of the Joint Council for Vaccines and Immunisation (JCVI), that prioritises the old and clinically vulnerable. Given the pace of the vaccine roll out to date, and with greater supplies expected shortly, those in frontline occupations can expect to be vaccinated in the coming weeks.
45.17. He reminded the Committee that schools returning is a priority for the Government, due to the considerable effect on long term inequality from missing out on education. Whilst many children will have gained considerable resilience and self-discipline from the experience, many will have missed out on an adequate education. It is known the return will lead to an increase in COVID-19 nationally, with some modelling on the R rate showing it could reach 1. Public Health and the Children’s Services Department have been working together over the last few weeks to put in place even more protection and testing in schools and testing kits for parents to help identify asymptomatic cases. This should drive down infections, or at least keep any peaks local. Darrell Gale said this is building on experience of schools that have remained open with significant numbers of children of key workers, those with special needs, and those with no access to equipment at home, where outbreaks have been managed incredibly well.
45.18. The Committee asked about how concerned people should be about the Brazilian variant of COVID-19.
45.19. Darrell Gale said that the Brazilian variant is a “variant of concern” and the local Public Health team will be alerted of any local cases and asked to help arrange surge testing in the affected area. The recent contact tracing of those with the suspected variant did not show any cases in East Sussex. He explained the UK’s genomics industry is first rate and has been able to identify 100s of variants of COVID-19, but not all are variants of concern.
45.20. The Committee asked about what additional services would be rolled out to assist people with mental health as a result of COVID-19
45.21. Jessica Britton said there have been a number of mental health services delivered in a different way or rolled out in response to COVID-19. The CCG is also working to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the demand for mental health services in the long term. Financial planning for next year will aim to understand how best to meet these future needs; will evaluate which of the additional services created during COVID-19 should continue; and will evaluate which services that have changed how they operate in response to COVID-19 can return to a more traditional face to face model.
45.22. The Committee RESOLVED to:
1) Thank the NHS, GPs, pharmacists and Public Health staff for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic;
2) note the report; and
3) request a further report in June with a focus on the restoration and recovery of Cancer services, and how the NHS is helping more vulnerable groups receive the vaccine.