WELCOME to 2021. It’s a lot like 2020.

Since the last LDRS weekend feature on Covid-19, on December 12, Cheshire has been moved up a Tier — twice — seen one council desperately appeal for school opening powers to be left with them, and a new national lockdown imposed.

It’s been a bumpy ride, to say the least. Unfortunately, it may well continue for the coming weeks.

That’s because NHS bosses are warning that their hospitals are already under huge pressure from coronavirus admissions, and they still haven’t taken into account the upswing in cases brought about by the Christmas rules relaxation.

So where are we now?

How are Cheshire’s hospitals coping?

On Wednesday, Cheshire West’s Covid-19 outbreak board heard from the Chief Executive of the Countess of Chester NHS Trust Dr Susan Gilby — where she revealed that her hospital has ‘the highest number in the north west of any hospital’.

Because of the influx in cases, Dr Gilby said that ‘50 per cent’ of all the patients in the hospital were Covid-19 related — with 231 coronavirus patients then-in and 21 in need of a mechanical ventilator — resulting in staff opening a fifth Covid-only ward.

She added: “The Countess is in a really challenged position. We have had a lot of Covid in-patients since November, and we went into Christmas with 30 per cent of general and acute beds filled with patients who needed treatment for Covid.

“By this January, it was 40 per cent. Today, it is 50 per cent. They continued to come in today.”

The latest data from January 5 shows that Mid Cheshire NHS Trust, which runs Leighton Hospital, has 143 Covid patients, with East Cheshire currently supporting 116 such patients.

Of these, eight needed a ventilator in Mid Cheshire, and four in East Cheshire.

What exacerbates the situation at the Countess is the large number of staff absences, Dr Gilby added in her speech.

The Trust currently has 185 staff off due to Covid-19 symptoms or isolation, with 60 per cent of these currently ill.

And, as bleak as the picture looks, Dr Gilby also issued an alarming warning about the nature of new admissions: “The thing we have noticed particularly today is that we have had a number of admissions of younger patients. We are seeing increasing numbers of people in their 40s or 50s admitted with chest problems.

“Today, we lost a 30 year old — it is affecting younger people in a pretty shocking way.”

The strain on the NHS is clear now. Dr Gilby also suggested that the North West Nightingale Hospital in Manchester was only open to patients from Greater Manchester, which NHS England refuted the next day.

Her comments were followed by CWAC Director of Public Health Ian Ashworth reminding members that a surge in positive tests translates to a rise in admissions two to three weeks later.

What are case numbers like?

Rising. Quickly.

Data going into the weekend confirmed another 280 cases for Cheshire East, and 354 for the western half of the county on Friday alone.

That takes CEC’s infection rate to 472.2 per 100,000 residents, and 595.2 for CWAC.

Prior to these figures being revealed, CEC leader Sam Corcoran said that ‘at least ten per cent’ of the borough had caught Covid-19.

The Labour politician said: “There have now been 13,930 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Cheshire East.

“To put that in some perspective, the population of Cheshire East is about 380,000, so 13,930 represents about four per cent, or just under four per cent — that’s one in 25 of the population who have already tested positive for Covid-19.

“Given the low rate of testing during the first wave, that suggests that at least ten per cent of the population have already had Covid-19.”

“However, to get herd immunity, you need to have at least 70 per cent immunity, and most vaccination programmes aim for 95 per cent — so we really need the vaccination programme.”

Winsford Guardian: A graph showing how Covid-19 hospital bed occupancy has changed since August. Key: Blue - East Cheshire NHS Trust, Grey - Countess of Chester NHS Trust, Orange - Mid Cheshire NHS TrustA graph showing how Covid-19 hospital bed occupancy has changed since August. Key: Blue - East Cheshire NHS Trust, Grey - Countess of Chester NHS Trust, Orange - Mid Cheshire NHS Trust

Cllr Corcoran added his concerns that ‘pressures on the NHS locally will increase for the next few weeks’.

However, he also believed that a glimmer of light is at the end of the tunnel: “I am hopeful that the infection rates after a peak due to the Christmas [rules] relaxations will plateau due to the Tier 3 and Tier 4 restrictions, and then begin to fall due to the impact of lockdown.

“But the next few weeks will be difficult for the NHS, so please do stay at home, and if you do go out, stay two metres apart, wear a mask, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water as soon as you return home.”

How worried should we be?

There is a recognition that the NHS is being asked to handle a predicted worst-wave of a major pandemic during the NHS’ traditionally busiest period — and it is going to take every residents’ hard work in following guidance to ensure their job doesn’t get harder.

Those concerns are also super-charged by the fact that there is a feeling that compliance rates with the law is down compared to the first lockdown, with Rob Pullen — representing CWAC schools — saying some headteachers were seeing more than 50 per cent of pupils in daily, owing to the expanded critical worker list.

So, however long this lockdown feels, and however tired we are of the loneliness that comes with coronavirus, it’s time for us all to re-double our efforts and stop the spread of this disease.