THE last Local Democracy Reporting Service Weekend Feature examined the enormity of the task in front of the NHS with the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

As of January 21, only eight per cent of Cheshire and Merseyside residents had had their first dose of the jab — with the inaugural inoculation coming on December 8 in our region.

This week, it was revealed by NHS chiefs that, despite having a long way to go, it’s completed the first major hurdle in protecting Cheshire against coronavirus.

What has the NHS achieved?

In short, it has offered a first dose to everyone in Cheshire who is in ‘group one’ of the government’s priority list — ‘residents in a care home for older adults and staff working in care homes for older adults’.

That’s according to Clare Watson, who is the Accountable Officer for NHS Cheshire Clinical Commissioning Group, the organisation behind the county’s vaccination programme.

She said the feat had been achieved last Sunday (January 24) in an appearance at Cheshire West and Chester Council’s Covid-19 Outbreak Board on Wednesday (January 27).

She said: “All 18 primary care sites went live on January 17. As of Sunday, all our care home residents and care [home staff] have received their first dose, which is fantastic.

“It’s really good progress. Everyone is working incredibly hard but also they’re incredibly committed.

“We have really challenging deadlines but we are confident with the modelling and work we are doing that we will hit those.”

Ms Watson added that that work has now begun on immunising homeless people in the area.

She said: “We are also getting to work on the hard to reach vulnerable and homeless vaccinated. Homeless people sit within priority group 4 regionally.”

Group 4 means ‘clinically extremely vulnerable individuals’.

Earlier in the week, Dr Paddy Kearns — a GP in Knutsford — told members of Cheshire East’s health and wellbeing board that ‘only 30’ over-80s were left to be vaccinated in the town, with around 300 over-70s in the same category.

Northwich Guardian: Proportion of over-80s with vaccine dose by sub-regions in the North West. Cheshire and Merseyside has 81 per cent jabbed. Data: NHS England.Proportion of over-80s with vaccine dose by sub-regions in the North West. Cheshire and Merseyside has 81 per cent jabbed. Data: NHS England.

And this statistic was also mentioned by Cllr Sam Corcoran in his daily Twitter video update on Thursday morning.

The council leader said: “The vaccination programme across Cheshire East is going remarkably well… some areas will be ahead of Knutsford, some will be behind — but generally, everywhere looks set to meet the target of vaccinating all over-70s, all clinically extremely vulnerable, and all frontline health and care workers by mid-February.”

Northwich Guardian: Proportion of over-80s with two vaccine doses by sub-regions in the North West. Cheshire and Merseyside leads the way with 13.4 per cent. Data: NHS England.Proportion of over-80s with two vaccine doses by sub-regions in the North West. Cheshire and Merseyside leads the way with 13.4 per cent. Data: NHS England.

These claims appear to be confirmed by data released this week from the National Immunisation Management Service.

It showed some 109,663 people aged over-80 in Cheshire and Merseyside have been given their first jab, representing 81 per cent of the region’s population.

As the data was only to January 24, the real number will be higher — making it seem likely that those targets will be met.

What is the NHS coping with?

Cllr Corcoran followed the good news segment of his video with a warning that just because someone has a first dose does not mean they are fully protected — so everyone should still be sticking to the lockdown rules in place until at least next month.

And that’s because infection rates are falling — but not as quickly as health chiefs would like.

Ian Ashworth, Cheshire West and Chester’s Director of Public Health told the council’s Covid-19 outbreak board that the borough has seen a ‘really good’ infection rate fall of ‘20 per cent’, but it was ‘not as sharply a drop as we would like’.

He said: “The really good news is that we are seeing the community transmission levels come down. We have seen a 20 per cent drop in the [infection] rates which is really good, but it is not as sharply a drop as we would like.

“We really want to get it down as low as possible. That’s one of the challenges we saw with lockdown two as we could not get it below 100 per 100,000, and then it went right back up again.”

This may be a quiet concern but it can become a serious problem — for example, when Greater Manchester left lockdown in the summer, its infection rate was higher than the one seen in London, and when hospitality re-opened it quickly shot back up again, forcing extra restrictions within a month.

In London, the same relaxations did not produce that sudden resurgence, so health chiefs in Cheshire are wary that moving out of lockdown too soon could be a double-hit on the NHS.

During the same meeting, Mr Ashworth also said that The Countess of Chester hospital was now seeing a younger generation of patients in intensive care, with more people aged between 50-59 now needing more acute treatment.

At the time of writing, updated hospital case figures for NHS trusts in England were not available.

What now?

The final two elements from Mr Ashworth’s update to members serve as a reminder as to why caution should still be the name of the game for Cheshire’s residents.

If you don’t grab control of this virus and really push case figures down, then it will lead to an explosion of new positive cases — and those cases can, sadly, be fatal to a great swathe of the population — not just the elderley.

That being said, with the NHS’ achievements in the past few days, there is a feeling within Cheshire’s leadership that normality is a step closer.

However, what puts the county a step back is bending the rules — so as afternoons start to lengthen next month, one more sustained push can bring lightness 24/7.