How do you prepare for the unknown? That is the challenge currently facing local authorities and public health teams like ours across the country. As the latest COVID-19 variant spreads and scientists and medical experts are still working out the whys and wherefores, local authorities don’t have time to stop and wait. Instead, we must forge ahead and prepare for well, just about anything.
A surge in hospital admissions placing extra pressures on our already overstretched healthcare colleagues, a COVID outbreak in a care home, school or local community; these scenarios could all become a reality and we must be ready. In Buckinghamshire, like all local authority areas, it’s all about the planning. Omicron might have only recently become a widespread cause for concern, but our public health team has been preparing behind the scenes for such an event for many months.
Our Local Outbreak Management Plans are the key to our strategy and are continuously updated. We have been working with our health and social care partners as part of our normal winter planning, but with the added ingredient of COVID thrown into the mix once again, that work has taken on an even sharper focus.
The clear advantage we have this winter, is the COVID-19 vaccine, which was only just rolling out this time last year. This continues to be our number one defence against the virus and, although we don’t yet know how well our current vaccines can protect against this new strain, one of our key focuses is on continuing to rollout our vaccine and booster programme to all those eligible, paying particular attention to the most vulnerable and targeting areas with low uptake. We are doing this by ongoing outreach and community work to promote the benefits and dispel the myths. We are spreading the messaging via our councillors, corporate communications channels and every available route possible. By monitoring data on testing and vaccination uptake and working with our partners in the Clinical Commissioning Group and local NHS Trust, we can send pop-up vaccine clinics and mobile testing units to areas of greatest need.
Our planning kicked into action last week when Buckinghamshire received news of its first case of Omicron locally. With so little known about the make-up and impact of this variant, our work has focused on finding and isolating known cases. We were notified quickly by the UKHSA and are working closely with them. We are monitoring all local PCR test results for genetic markers which might indicate the spread of the variant in our local communities so we can act quickly should the need arise. Our local contact tracing team links people who need to self-isolate with the support they need. Our capacity to mobilise targeted surge testing is tried and tested, having been implemented twice already this year. We have continued to review and revise all our planning assumptions for winter 2021/22 and meet regularly to ensure we are on top of everything needed.
With schools impacted so much in the early days of the pandemic, we are focusing on supporting them to interpret and implement COVID guidance in a way which maximises face-to-face teaching time, delivers comprehensive education and helps pupils to catch up on what they might have missed.
Keeping abreast of the demands placed on frontline NHS and social care services also remains a priority. We closely monitor system pressures and pinch points with the aim of tackling them earlier to avoid negative impacts on service users and unnecessary strains on staff, many of whom have faced extreme pressures and made extraordinary efforts to maintain essential services throughout the pandemic. This winter period increases those pressures once again. We will continue to support our staff to do their jobs and to prevent burnout and illness.
Our regular winter plan includes a comprehensive campaign to promote flu vaccine uptake, and this has not altered this year. Combining our messaging about the best ways to keep you and your family safe and well this winter, in line with the national focus, we continue to push out targeted communications via our regular channels. Additional attention is given to support for those in extra need. Whether it’s families struggling to put enough food on the table or an older person who can’t afford to heat their home, our Helping Hand service works with them, making use of our Winter Grant Fund.
Keeping our residents and communities safe during another uncertain winter period does pose challenges, but together with our partners we are doing our best to limit those risks. If the pandemic has shown us anything it is that, whatever the challenges faced, we can and will rise to them.
Cllr Carl Jackson is deputy cabinet member for public health at Buckinghamshire Council