Exclusive: Bedford’s coronavirus cases could be twice as high

coronavirus testing

The Bedford Independent has joined forces with local health bosses and MPs to demand Health Secretary Matt Hancock publishes the Borough’s pillar 2 testing data, believing the true number of coronavirus cases could be double that reported by Public Health England (PHE).

Pillar 2 data is that which has been collected from drive-through testing labs, and home testing kits.

These form the basis of the government’s community testing programme and “test and trace” system. This data is collected by commercial labs and partners running the system.

Despite calls for it to be, pillar 2 data does not form part of the daily statistics reported by PHE.

Public Health England (PHE) told the Bedford Independent on 18 June, “To ensure consistent reporting across all pillars we have paused reporting the number of people tested due to an issue with the data for pillar 2.

“There are a small percentage of cases in pillar 2 where a person has been tested more than once or tested positive for coronavirus more than once. Any incorrect figures identified will be corrected.”

On 18 June we also contacted the Department for Health and Social Care to ask why pillar 2 data still wasn’t being reported. We are still awaiting a response.

This week, in the Government’s Covid surveillance report, the East of England’s pillar 1 and pillar 2 data have been compared and show a massive increase in PHE figures.

Lab confirmed pillar 1 and 2 data 1 July
PHE’s Weekly Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Surveillance Report for week 26 shows the pillar 1 and pillar 2 comparison for each region

It can clearly be seen that there are over half as many cases of coronavirus among pillar 2 test cases (25/100,000) as there are among those already reported as pillar 1 (just under 40/100,000).

Therefore, the true number of coronavirus cases in Bedford is likely to be almost double what is being publicly reported.

We are now asking Matt Hancock MP:

  • Why are pillar 2 figures not being included in PHE’s daily updates, despite the fact this publicly-available data is hiding in plain sight?
  • Why is it taking the government so long to provide detailed local data which would give local authorities the vital knowledge needed to react effectively?

Leicester, which is entering a localised second lockdown, was revealed to have three times the number of cases once pillar 2 data was added to PHE’s original figures.

They only received this additional information five days ago.

Bedford health chiefs and MPs back the calls for more data

Bedford’s MP’s have joined the Bedford Independent’s call on Matt Hancock to share more detailed data with local health teams.

Richard Fuller, MP for North East Bedfordshire, already raised an urgent question on 17 June, followed by a letter to the Secretary of State on Monday 29 June.

Fuller letter to Hancock 29 June 2020 COVID
Richard Fuller MP wrote to Matt Hancock on 29 June

On 24 June, Bedford & Kempston MP, Mohammad Yasin asked Boris Johnson for specific pillar 2 data at PMQs.

For over a month, Bedford’s Mayor and health chiefs have been begging the government for more data.

PHE and the Joint Biosecurity Centre have promised a ‘deep dive’ into the true picture of coronavirus cases in Bedford, but the findings are likely to take a further week to emerge.

Read more:

By which time, it will be six weeks since our local authority first became alerted to a potential hotspot in Bedford.

Since then, Mayor Dave has urged residents to approach the lifting of lockdown restrictions with caution.

The local message is to maintain 2m distance, wash hands regularly, wear a mask when in public – particularly on public transport – and to stay at home if possible.

More worryingly, a report on last night’s ITV News found there was no geographical information associated with any of the 4,750,954 pillar 2 tests reported to have been carried out.

This means that no-one outside the system itself can have any access to where any individual may have tested positive.

One of the most basic pieces of information needed if you are trying to control an outbreak.

ITV news also reported that councils do receive a weekly update on data from pillar 2 tests, but it only recently includes postcode level data.

Daily data – including addresses, ethnicity, occupation which are needed to contain an outbreak – is still not available.

Data inaccuracies

Bedford’s health chiefs have been aware of inaccuracies among reporting of cases for some time. it’s possible those in Leicester didn’t have the same foresight.

Leicester’s second lockdown has taken place 20 days after it first alerted PHE to a problem. Bedford’s Mayor and MPs have been asking for local data for almost a month.

Cllr Louise Jackson, portfolio holder for public health & wellbeing, said, “Bedford’s political leaders have been asking for better data for months now. It is absolutely essential that our public health teams have it.

“I’m under no illusion that the testing process is complicated, and that Public Health England have a difficult job to do, but comprehensive, reliable data from all testing must now flow through to the local authority swiftly, so that our Local Outbreak Control Plan can be implemented as soon as cases are identified.

Read: Bedford Borough Council publishes Local Outbreak Control Plan

“You can’t tackle an infection effectively if you’re only finding out about it weeks after it first occurred, and you can’t tackle it if you don’t know where it is.

“Some of the pillar 2 data from Milton Keynes testing centre and the mobile military testing centres is at last starting to filter through to Bedford now as part of our ‘deep dive’, and while we haven’t seen the spike in cases that Leicester has, our rate of infection remains high.

“That’s why we’ve been encouraging Bedford Borough residents to stay at home as much as possible, and why we are asking people to maintain two-metres distance, wash their hands frequently and wear a face mask on public transport and in shops and other closed settings.

“Coronavirus has not gone away in Bedford Borough and we need to work together to stop the virus from spreading through our communities.

Bedford covid Cases per 100,000 pillar 1 and 2
Combining pillar 1 and 2 data shows Bedford (in red) cases to be 30-44.99 per 100,000

Mohammad Yasin added, “A week ago, I asked the Prime Minister how he knew Bedford was safe to enter the next phase of lockdown easing when his Government weren’t publishing the vital data we need to make the right decisions to keep the public safe.

“His trademark blustering answer dismissed my question but now we know for certain what we have for weeks suspected, that the Government is at best burying, at worst suppressing, a whole tranche of crucial health information in the midst of a pandemic.

“The implications of this are deadly serious and I will be raising this at the highest levels.

“Only because of the excellent work of our local public health teams did we get the deep dive investigation that will give us the true picture of the infection rate in Bedford.

“I am pleased that as a Borough we have been unified in our message to the public – to maintain the stay home messaging but we had to override the Government’s messaging to try and keep the public safe.”

Mayor Dave Hodgson also gave his thoughts, “I have been calling on Public Health England and the Government to provide us with all the Coronavirus test data we need, including pillar 2 data and postcode level data, for weeks.

“Pillar 1 data alone is not, and has never been, sufficient and gives a distorted view of the situation – local councils need full and in depth data to make the best decisions for their local areas, be that in Leicester or here in Bedford Borough.”

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