Blog: Protecting our communities this winter

Although it’s still the height of summer, a challenging autumn and winter lie ahead. With Covid, flu and a cost of living crisis, Director of Public Health for Liverpool, Professor Matthew Ashton explains how learning lessons from the pandemic is the best way to prepare and protect our communities.

“It’s clear we will continue to have waves of Covid-19 for the foreseeable future. Winter has always been a particularly difficult time, even before the majority of people had ever heard of coronaviruses. Many viruses rear their heads during the colder months – but this winter looks to be particularly challenging, especially around flu. We’ve seen an unprecedented number of cases in Australia, and as we normally follow the same pattern (albeit six months later) it wouldn’t be a surprise to see high numbers heading our way.

Mix in a cost-of-living crisis, food and fuel poverty, staffing shortages and potential strikes it really does have the potential to be a perfect storm – and one that will definitely hit our most vulnerable the hardest, so it’s essential we prepare and protect our communities the best we can.

One of the biggest tools we have at our disposal remains the vaccination programme. It’s worked extremely well and has been shown to be safe and effective in breaking the link between the virus, serious illness and death. However, we know immunity can – and does – wane. The latest data tells us that around one in four cases are now possible re-infections, so it remains critical we protect those most at risk. This not only includes those who have been previously vaccinated and will be eligible for the autumn booster, but those who so far haven’t taken up the offer of vaccination, so my mantra will continue to be: “It’s never too late to get fully vaccinated”.

Even during the latest wave, we’ve seen large numbers of people hospitalised because of Covid, but we also see lots of people in hospital for other reasons having Covid, and therefore needing to be managed in a different way. This takes up valuable bed space, which in turn has put pressure on the NHS by impacting on both emergency and elective care.

Our approach to vaccination will continue to be data led, focusing on areas and communities with lowest uptake. We will continue to make the offer as easy as possible to access – taking vaccination into the heart of our communities with localised drop-in clinics and offering roving vaccination and schemes like ‘taxi to the vaxi’.

It’s no secret that the core cities in the UK have some of the lowest vaccination uptakes, and that we, like many other areas, have disparities across different demographic groups. Liverpool continues to work incredibly hard on addressing these equalities, not only keeping people safe but helping minimise disruption and getting the economy moving again.

There are many reasons why some people have chosen not to get their vaccine, so messaging will remain clear, honest and non-judgmental – focusing on making sure people fully understand the reasons for vaccination and the associated risks of not being vaccinated. Our community champions programme was set up to support minority communities who were disproportionally affected by the pandemic and boost vaccine take up. It has focused on building trust, communicating accurate health information and developing new networks of trusted local champions– and the results speak for themselves. Within a year, we’ve seen a 20% increase of vaccination among minority communities.

The Liverpool Vaccine Equity programme with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the city’s Primary Care Networks has also empowered communities to develop their own solutions to vaccine hesitancy and our vaccine call team are performing a critical job in tackling false information and making sure residents know about the offer available to them.

This is incredibly important and valuable work, but it does takes time and investment. The reward is in tens of people coming forward, not the thousands who already have, so resources need to be targeted to support the programme, and enabling people to make fully informed choices about their health and to understand why vaccination really is the safest and best option for them.

In Liverpool we were proud to pioneer mass testing which lowered infection rates and saved lives. We were proud to play a major role in the national Events Research Programme that got large scale events up and running again. And we are proud to be part of the Pandemic Institute set up to help us prevent, prepare for and respond to pandemics of the future.

It is essential we invest in, nurture and support local public health activity both now and in the future, truly learning the lessons of the Covid pandemic.”

This blog was originally written for and published online at the MJ.co.uk

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