Welsh coal towns' death rate double England's average as MP blames conspiracy theorists for flouting lockdown

Robert Mendick
Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales - Welsh coal towns' death rate double England's average as MP blames conspiracy theorists for flouting lockdown  - JAY WILLIAMS
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As Britain eyes an end to lockdown, one area is creating a particular headache for public health officials, scientists and politicians: Wales, and especially the old mining communities. 

The country has proportionally almost twice the number of cases as the rest of the UK while mortality rates in and around the Rhondda Valley have also been among the very highest in the country.

Across Wales, the latest figures show 409 cases per 100,000 population compared to 262 in England, 273 in Scotland and 247 in Northern Ireland.

As of Sunday, Wales had lost 1,267 people to Covid-19 out of a population of just over three million. A sixth of the dead have come from Rhondda Cynon Taf, the county borough that covers the Rhondda Valley.

The latest figures show that Rhondda Cynon Taf's positive test rate is 610 cases per 100,000 of the population. In total, 1,466 people have tested positive in a population of 240,000 and 224 people have died. It has the highest mortality rate in Wales at 93.28 deaths per 100,000, and one of the highest in the UK.

Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for the area, said: “Rhondda is the worst in the country. We are the worst, worst, worst.” Only Barrow-in-Furness, in Cumbria, but with a much smaller population has more proportionally more cases - 823.7 positive tests per 100,000.

While London and parts of the south east of England contemplate life out of lockdown, much of Wales remains in the grip of the virus, the all-important transmission rate thought to be only just below the magic R figure of one that arrests its exponential growth.

Many blame these communities' impoverished, ageing populations. A lot of the residents are former miners, with lung conditions from years spent down the pits, who are particularly vulnerable.  

But Mr Bryant, one of Labour’s most senior MPs, has accused a significant number of his constituents of flouting the lockdown and spreading coronavirus because they falsely believe they have immunity after claiming to have caught it last year.

He believes their ‘dangerous’ claims are fuelling the spread of the virus.  

In desperation, Mr Bryant, a former minister, posted a video on Facebook last week pleading with locals in the Rhondda to ignore a “a chunk of people talking b-----ks”. Mr Bryant said in the video: “The conspiracy theories doing the rounds are beginning to do my head in.

“I have been told by one chap he didn’t need to abide by the social-distancing rules because he knows for an absolute certain fact that he contracted coronavirus last summer and he knows lots of people who contracted coronavirus in November and December last year and therefore they are immune as well.”

Mr Bryant went on: “It is completely and utterly untrue and dangerous.” Beneath his Facebook posting, a number of local residents insist they are maintaining social-distancing rules but at the same time are also convinced they caught Covid-19 last year.

“Someone must know the truth of how long this was spreading before we were told,” posted one constituent, who claimed she had contracted the virus in October after “becoming quite ill”.

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The Welsh Valleys are also a victim, said Mr Bryant, of being tight-knit communities, in which generations of families still live in homes together, leaving older people susceptible; obesity rates are high and so too smoking along with lung diseases contracted in the mines.

Many of its inhabitants work in the social care sector or as bus drivers and have brought the disease back home with them, said Mr Bryant. The tragedy that has hit this part of south Wales was predicted almost two months ago by Wales’s own First Minister.

“We have an older, sicker population,” said Mark Drakeford on March 30. “Our history of coalmining and heavy industry means we have people with breathing problems that the coronavirus is particularly likely to affect.”

Critics have questioned why - if it knew then - didn’t the Welsh Government put in place more testing and more shielding of the vulnerable population.

In April, thousands of letters telling people they were clinically extremely vulnerable and should shield themselves were delivered to the wrong addresses while a target of 5,000 tests a day was scrapped after Mr Drakeford admitted it “hadn’t turned out to be achievable.”

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Locally, there are complaints that testing kits, lined up by the Welsh, were snaffled by Downing Street to use in England; such claims have fuelled a rise in Welsh nationalism.

One intensive care consultant at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital told BBC Wales: "In this area there's a lot of poverty, deprivation and chronic ill health - so those people if they do catch Covid are less likely to survive."

Public Health Wales cautioned against making domestic comparisons between Wales and the rest of the country. The spokesman said: “It’s very difficult to make effective comparisons between the data from different areas, as there are multiple factors involved, including demography, the overall health of the population and the prevalence of underlying health conditions, adherence to social-distancing measures and access to testing, as well as socio-economic factors.”

Paul Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, accused the Labour-led administration in Cardiff of failures as stark as the ones being levelled at Boris Johnson’s Government.

“It’s absolutely astounding that the Welsh Government has sent shielding letters to the wrong people – not just once – but twice - and to be quite frank, the Labour Government’s explanation that it’s a processing error is simply not good enough,” he said.

“At the height of this pandemic, the administrative incompetence of those trusted to contact patients has resulted in some people across Wales being at an increased risk of contracting the virus.”