Concerns about poor supermarket safety practices as Covid rates rise in the Black Country

Concerns have been raised about "poor safety practice" in major supermarkets across the West Midlands – which may be leading to more people contracting coronavirus.

Local authority infection rates across the region
Local authority infection rates across the region

Council leaders across the West Midlands have jointly written to the Government, urging them to meet with the biggest UK supermarket chains and discuss what measures can be put in place to keep staff and shoppers safe.

Data suggests a "significant" number of Covid-19 cases are linked to supermarket visits, according to information shown via the NHS Test and Trace scheme.

The call comes as local hospitals are currently under "extreme pressure" Dr David Rother, chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust, has said – with Birmingham having more Covid patients currently than any other provider in the country.

It comes as urban areas of the Black Country continue to see “concerning” rising levels of coronavirus cases.

The region has now been identified as a problem nationally, because it is failing to follow a falling trend being experienced in other parts of the country.

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While areas of Staffordshire are now seeing virus rates fall, those in the Black Country boroughs continue to rise.

Experts say the R-number in the region probably remains above one, meaning the virus is continuing to spread.

Dudley now has the fourth highest rate of infection per 100,000 people in England, at almost 550 – up around 50 on the week before.

Sandwell’s rate is almost 500, Walsall’s around 400 and Wolverhampton’s 364. Cannock’s rate is marginally up, while rates in Stafford, Lichfield, South Staffordshire and Wyre Forest are turning.

The figures come after the Black Country was identified as having a high rate of household transmissions. There are fears lockdown restrictions are not being kept to by some families, pushing the rate up.

King’s College expert Tim Spector said: “The continued rise in the Midlands, despite national lockdown, is concerning.”

He called for a regional approach, with stricter measures in areas where the virus continues to spread and more relaxed measures where it is under control.

Retired Black Country GP Dr Satya Sharma said there were pockets where people were not observing social distancing guidelines, particularly in local shops.

He said cultural traditions meant that some ethnic groups found social-distancing guidelines more difficult. He added: “I see people going into buildings not wearing masks, or maybe just putting a hanky over their mouth which then falls off.”

Supermarket safety relaxed?

Leader of Birmingham City Council Ian Ward said he was worried that coronavirus safety measures had been relaxed in supermarkets.

He said: "Seven West Midlands authorities have written to the Government this week expressing significant concerns that the spread of Covid-19 may be being exacerbated by poor safety practice in major supermarket chains.

"Our local data suggests a significant number of cases are linked to supermarket visits reporting through NHS Test and Trace. Furthermore, whistle-blowing data and feedback has also highlighted that Covid-19 safety measures have been significantly relaxed in supermarkets."

Councillor Ward added: "According to Public Health England data, supermarkets are the most common places that people have visited in the days leading up to a positive coronavirus test, reported on the Test and Trace app in England.

"Almost one in five people who tested positive had visited a supermarket in the days leading up to a positive test, so we're urging the government to convene a meeting of the major supermarket chains, to agree, sign up to and rapidly implement a Covid-secure charter, and to ensure options for timely enforcement measures are reflected either in law or guidance.

"This is about keeping staff and customers safe, feedback from Government suggests our request has been positively received, so we'll wait to see what happens next."

Dr Lola Abudu of Public Health England for the West Midlands has echoed the call. She said: "I don't think we can take from the data we have that supermarket's are where people contract Covid, but I certainly support Councillor Ward's view, that supermarkets are putting in the strictest Covid measures, so the likelihood of transmission is as low as it can be."

Councillor Ward said: "Supermarkets are the most common places people have visited. Our request to the Government is that they reinforce the rules and make sure people are safe. As we all still have to shop for food."

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