Increased testing behind spike in coronavirus cases at Welsh health board

By Claire Hayhurst, PA

Wales’s chief medical officer has said a spike in the number of coronavirus cases at a health board area is due to increased testing.

The Aneurin Bevan University Health Board currently has 309 confirmed cases of Covid-19, almost half the total cases in the nation.

It covers the areas of Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire, Newport, Torfaen and South Powys.

(PA Graphics)

On Wednesday, Dr Sarah Aitken, director of public health at the health board, warned it was seeing “the same pattern as was seen in Italy”.

Dr Frank Atherton, the chief medical officer for Wales, told a press conference in Cardiff on Thursday that the higher number of cases in that area was a “complex issue”.

“It is closer to England, we know that the hotspot in the UK is around London and so being on the border with England is an issue,” Dr Atherton said.

“There has been a lot more testing in Aneurin Bevan, in that health board, and so the fact we’ve been doing more testing has led to an increase in the number of cases identified.

“I think we always said that as the epidemic unfolds, there will be areas in Wales which flare up and then calm down a bit.

“It’s a complex issue and there are a number of reasons for that, but it’s largely about testing.”

Dr Atherton said coronavirus was “circulating widely” in all parts of Wales, though this could currently be “to a higher degree” in south Wales.

Around 80% of people will contract Covid-19 at some point, with the current measures put in place to give the NHS time to get ready, he told the briefing.

“At some point, once the interventions that we’ve put in place here in Wales and in the UK are lifted, there is a risk that people will then start to become infected again,” Dr Atherton said.

“And so the way in which we release those measures will be very critical.

“What we’re doing at the moment is watching other countries which have put these quite repressive measures in place, to see what happens when they lift – how quickly can we lift those measures?

“These are all unanswered questions, but everybody is vulnerable because nobody has experienced this virus before – it’s a new virus to humanity.”

Andrew Goodall, the chief executive of NHS Wales, described Dr Aitken’s message as “really important” and called on people to follow the advice on social distancing and staying at home.

“I think the intention there is to make sure that the public are very aware that the steps that have been outlined, and the actions to ask for social distancing, for people to stay in their homes, is genuinely followed by the population,” Dr Goodall said.

“Obviously we have the international experience that we have to look at, and watching the experience through Italy and also through Spain in particular.

“I think that guides us to some of the actions that are going to be necessary here, but I think it was a really important message.”

He said the number of critical care beds in Wales had been expanded from 156 to 290.

As of Wednesday, Wales had 628 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 22 reported deaths.

In the video posted online, Dr Aitken said: “The pattern we are seeing in Gwent is the same pattern as was seen in Italy, where their healthcare system is now overwhelmed.

“Without a huge effort by all of us, we are heading for the moment in Gwent where our NHS will be overwhelmed, too.

“We won’t have enough hospital beds for everyone who needs lifesaving ventilators and intensive care.”