One year of Covid: Public health director on borough's pandemic response

Havering Council's director of public health Mark Ansell.

Havering Council's director of public health Mark Ansell. - Credit: Havering Council

The Covid pandemic has shone a light on people whose work would not normally be in the public eye.

One such person is Mark Ansell, Havering Council's director of public health. He has been a key player in the authority's response to the virus throughout the past 12 months.

The first recorded coronavirus case in the borough was on March 6 last year and Mark said the council's flu pandemic planning meant it didn't have "a blank piece of paper".

"But what we were planning for in terms of the flu pandemic wasn't Covid. We, like everyone else, have developed things as we had to."

In the earliest stages of the first wave, he explained how the council relied on modelling, rather than data, to inform its response.

"The modelling gave a much better picture than the real data because the systems weren't there to get the testing and it was rather slow."

Cases soon grew, with the borough seeing the peak of the first wave in early April.

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Mark revealed decisions that normally take weeks and months to reach were taken in days.

Preparations included the possibility of mass deaths, with a temporary mortuary set up at South Essex Crematorium in Upminster.

But Mark said that only a small portion of this extra capacity was ever used.

"The great unknown was 'what is the scale of the event we are planning for'? In some regards, we planned for something that was even worse than what transpired.

"We were thinking about the next weeks and months, not the next year or the year after that. That's the bit I was much less mentally prepared for."

Last summer saw Havering's case rates fall to almost zero, before starting to rise again in September.

The peak of the second wave far exceeded the first, with government figures showing the borough reach a weekly rate of more than 1,300 cases per 100,000 people in late December.

Mark said the council spent time in October and November trying to work out whether there was anything specific about the borough's population which had caused it to grow into one of the country's Covid hotspots.

But later came the revelation of the emergence of a more transmissible Kent variant of the virus.

Prime minister Boris Johnson introduced a four-week lockdown at the beginning of November to address the national rise in cases but Mark feels this was a couple of weeks late to happen in Havering.

When asked if councils should have more powers to implement Covid measures, he said: "It's very difficult to politically make those sorts of local decisions which are needed on the basis of public health but have such huge consequences.

"You've got whole sections of the economy which are no longer open and the individuals there personally are probably at low risk of suffering any serious consequences of the infection.

"So I do think they are decisions that are made rightly by national government and I think that's something coming out of the second wave, that we are coming out as a country."

Rates are now falling again, with the borough now under 50 cases per every 100,000 people.

Once the number of weekly cases drops to less than 20, Mark believes the council will be better placed to target outbreaks moving forward.

Interventions could include testing in particular areas or telling a premises to close where there has been an outbreak.

The borough's vaccination drive is now in full swing, with centres set up at Hornchurch Library as well as The Liberty Shopping Centre and Victoria Hospital in Romford.

But Mark had a warning that improvements in rapid community testing and support for those in self-isolation were needed alongside this to ensure rates remained low.

He also believes people will need to be re-vaccinated as soon as autumn.

"We will end up with a way of living with it but it's not going to go away.

"There will be lingering consequences. We won't simply go back to how we were."

The government has unveiled its roadmap back to normality, with the first phase seeing the return of children to school this week.

Secondary school students have been provided with two rapid tests to take each week at home, and Mark said this has "real value".

"Regular testing allows you to pick people up who may be infectious but don't have symptoms.

"The next step is to get adults in the bubble of those children to be tested as well so that stops transmission to their kids, that stops transmission in the school."

Despite being at the centre of the borough's pandemic response, he said the last year had been no harder for him than anyone.

"I am in many respects in an enormously fortunate position. I've been able to work through it - it's been much harder work than I ever anticipated.

"A very strange year."

We can all vouch for that.