DORSET’S surge in Covid cases is likely to have been driven by visitors to the area – including those bringing in new variants.

The county’s director of public health, Sam Crowe, says there is evidence that incoming visitors, from areas where travelling was not allowed, may have contributed to a rise in cases, in addition to the permitted Christmas visits.

He told an online meeting on Tuesday that outbreaks at schools, care home and more recently Guy’s Marsh and the Verne prisons, had kept staff busy trying to contain the spread of Covid across the area, but much of the transmission continued to take place in households.

Around 80-100 incidents were being recorded locally in January each week.

Mr Crowe said that at the peak in December and January teams were dealing with 600 cases each day in the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole area and 250 in the Dorset Council area – figures which he said ‘dwarfed’ the earlier surges.

Swanage and Wareham Voice: Weymouth beach during Summer 2020. Picture: Dorset Echo

“We were knocked off our feet and it caught everyone by surprise” he told the county-wide joint public health board.

He told the meeting that around 130 were being treated in local hospitals in the first wave, but at the worst of this second wave there had been 550.

The director said that the rapid rise of cases in the BCP area was similar to the surge seen in London and the South East, although was less marked in the more rural Dorset Council area.

“The role of in-bound travel played its part. The working hypothesis is that because we were in a different tier than London and other parts of the South East there was a lot of in-bound travel just before the Christmas period and, along with the social mixing allowed over the holiday period, that led to a window where our cases transmitted much more quickly than we anticipated and we had the subsequent rise in infections,” said Mr Crowe.

He said that more analysis of that period had been requested s that it could feed into the debate about how to open up again safely.

Swanage and Wareham Voice: The varying levels of coronavirus cases in Dorset according to Public Health England on Sunday, January 3, 2021The varying levels of coronavirus cases in Dorset according to Public Health England on Sunday, January 3, 2021

Mr Crowe said that the early system to contact people who were isolating had now been changed after realising that out of thousands of welfare calls made by both councils from the autumn onwards only relatively few people had asked for help. He said that part of the reason could be that people were being contacted often only when they were well into their period of isolation.

He said that system now would be that anyone the national track and trace service was not able to contact within 24 hours would be handed to local teams with the hope that they could bring about and improvement in the figures. Evidence had already proved they were better at tracing people than the national system.

Mr Crowe said work was also underway to speed up local tracing, isolating and testing as cases began to subside and that a network of eight community testing sites would be set up across both council areas aimed at people working out of their homes who needed a test. There would also be pop-up sites, all offering lateral flow testing.

Among the working population now being tested on a regular basis were up to 4,000 council staff each week, across both council areas.

Work is also underway on a system, soon to be introduced, which will offer transport for people who had difficulty in getting to vaccination centres. This will be based along the 'cabs for jabs' model used elsewhere in the country.

Mr Crowe said the key to future work would be to move more quickly to identify positive cases and to get those people to rapidly isolate, slowing down on stopping further spread.