Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
A health expert has warned coronavirus levels could soon reach catastrophic levels in the Swansea Bay area unless people follow the rules on social distancing during the Christmas season.
Dr Keith Reid warned that if people didn’t keep their distance from others as much as possible, the virus would have a stranglehold and risk bringing health and social care services to their knees.
Neath Port Talbot has record levels of Covid-19 infection rates – currently the highest in Wales – and numbers are rising rapidly. Swansea is not far behind.
In Neath Port Talbot the reported infection rate, as of December 7, is 622 cases per 100,000 population, compared to 446 cases per 100,000 in Swansea.
In September, just before the local lockdown, the figures were 56 cases per 100,000 for Swansea and 38 cases per 100,000 for Neath Port Talbot.
Between November 25 and December 1, there were 1,674 new cases of Covid-19 recorded in Swansea Bay – 711 in Neath Port Talbot and 960 in Swansea.
Dr Reid, Swansea Bay University Health Board director of public health, said: “We are at a critical stage. Infection rates are at record levels and we all need to play our part to bring this situation under control and quickly.
“If infections continue to rise at the current rate then, without another lockdown before Christmas, the local system will be overwhelmed.”
He added: “I don’t want to be standing here within the next fortnight telling people the spread of the virus is out of control, that too many people are dying needlessly and health and social care workers can’t cope for much longer.
“It is a big thing to ask at this time of year when, after the kind of year we’ve had, we all want to be together with our friends and family.
“But my appeal is – on behalf of doctors, nurses and social care workers who have been at full stretch for so long – please stop and think.
“Please think about what you need to do rather than what you want to do. The vaccine is coming but for most of us it’s not here yet.
“We have a chance to stave off a potential catastrophe.”
Dr Reid said people mixing with others at home, in the street, at work with friends and strangers was the driving force behind the rise in numbers.
He said for the first 48 hours or so before symptoms emerged, people didn’t even know they were infected, let alone potentially passing it on to people they loved.
“Unless this community transmission drops significantly, we will be in a catastrophic situation by January because of big rises in cases of Covid and hospital admissions,” said Dr Reid.
Directors of social care at the two councils are said to be making tough decisions.
Dave Howes, director of social services in Swansea, said the rising case levels were “extremely worrying”, and that demand for services was starting to outstrip what was available.
“Our teams have done an incredible job for so many months,” he said.
“But we are dealing with a depleted, stretched and exhausted workforce, not just within our hospitals, but in community settings too. We are looking to reduce services in some areas, to make changes that no-one wants to make.”
Andrew Jarrett, Neath Port Talbot’s director of social services, said: “People currently receiving support in their own homes, or in a care home, will be affected by the changes we will need to make as resources will be diverted to care for those most in need.
“The difficult reality is that if we continue to see the number of Covid-19 cases continue to rise as rapidly as they are now going into the New Year, services will struggle to respond.”
It is the second time a joint statement has been released by the health board and two councils. On November 4, they warned the situation was becoming “very serious”.
Cllr Rob Jones, leader of Neath Port Talbot Council, said it only took a minority to ignore the guidelines and lead to a spread in coronavirus.
He urged people to pull together – a view echoed by Swansea Council leader Rob Stewart.
“We are in a critical time,” said Cllr Stewart.
“To save lives and protect the NHS we need, once again, to do the right thing.”