The cause of a Covid-19 outbreak in Weston-super-Mare which forced health chiefs to shut the only hospital remains a mystery.
But furious residents say it could be due to tourists flocking to the beach to enjoy the sunny weather – and scientists agree.
Infectious disease experts also say the spike in coronavirus cases could be down to an unreported clusters of care home cases.
Weston General Hospital stopped taking hospital admissions and A&E patients from 8am yesterday, citing a ‘high number’ of Covid-19 patients.
Local media say it has seen double the amount of coronavirus patients in a week and reports claim up to 40 per cent of staff have recently received a positive test.
But the town’s MP, who today confirmed an outbreak, said the hospital was ‘not full’ and had closed for a deep clean, while officials are ‘running tests’ to determine the cause.
The unprecedented closure of the hospital’s doors has been blamed on day-trippers to the coast since the lockdown was loosened two weeks ago.
Angry residents say ‘it’s not rocket science’ – cases have risen because crowds are unable to stay socially distanced at the beach.
Weston-super-Mare’s mayor even admitted ‘you can’t rule it out’, when questioned if scores of Britons on the beach were the cause of a surge in cases.
Weston-super-Mare’s Covid-19 outbreak remains shrouded in mystery – but scientists and residents say it could be due to tourists flocking to the beach (pictured yesterday)
Angry residents say ‘it’s not rocket science’ – cases have risen because crowds are unable to stay socially distanced at the beach. Pictured: The promenade yesterday
The seaside town’s hospital, Weston General, stopped taking hospital admissions and A&E patients from 8am yesterday, citing a ‘high number’ of COVID-19 patients
Weston-super-Mare is in Somerset, the South West. The region has been the least affected by the coronavirus so far
Weston General Hospital, which has 250 beds, dramatically announced yesterday morning that it could not take any more admissions.
Today it has urged patients with appointments to not travel to the hospital, and has also set out rules on when people can visit amid the ‘temporary’ shutdown.
A statement said the hospital ‘currently has a high number of patients with Covid-19’. But it did not provide exact numbers.
Somerset Live claims it saw a message reportedly sent to NHS staff that said more than 64 patients have tested positive in the hospital.
The message, which the NHS trust has yet to deny is fake, said only 30 patients had tested positive at the beginning of last week.
And the newspaper claimed the leaked memo said testing of staff, including workers without any symptoms, has revealed ’40 per cent as COVID-19 positive’.
WESTON HOSPITAL STAFF ‘WORRIED AND CONFUSED’
Staff at the NHS Weston General Hospital are ‘worried and confused’, according to a major trade union.
Liz French, a representative for Unison, told the BBC: ‘They’re confused, they’re worried but I have to say they are pulling together to do their best for their patients and all their colleagues.
‘It’s not just the patients that have been diagnosed with Covid-19 but also lots of the staff because they’ve done lots of testing over the past week or so.
‘They were unhappy but they were getting on with their jobs.’
Ms French said staff felt there was a lack of communication from hospital bosses.
‘Although the senior management team were meeting every couple of days to discuss the way forward but that wasn’t getting down to the staff.
‘That was the biggest problem and that’s why they were so worried,” she said.
There is speculation the hospital is struggling to put protective procedures in place, with the message to NHS staff reportedly saying: ‘Discussions… have all concluded that there is no mitigation that can be put in place to safely manage and maintain operations at Weston.’
Dr William Oldfield, medical director at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, said ‘all hospitals have frequent changes in admissions’.
But the move came as a shock because only one other hospital has had to take such drastic steps during the outbreak – and that was a London hospital two weeks before the peak of the pandemic.
And the South West – which also covers the tourist-hotspots of Devon and Cornwall – has been the least affected region in the UK.
‘The temporary closure of Weston General Hospital is concerning,’ Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told MailOnline.
‘Especially at a time when we are expecting to see new Covid-19 cases to remain at low levels.
‘It’s difficult to be sure of the reasons why the hospital experienced this sudden increase.
‘This could be simply natural fluctuations of caseloads that you can expect to see during an outbreak, or this could be a consequence of increased visitors into the town from a couple of weeks ago with onward local transmission.’
Mark Canniford, Lib Dem mayor of Weston and member of North Somerset Council, criticising the ‘total disregard’ for the town’s residents from day-trippers
Professor Paul Hunter said: ‘With the increase in visitor numbers – more people who are still infected are going to the town and spreading the infection to other visitors and locals’
WHY DOES THE SOUTH WEST HAVE SO FEW DEATHS?
The South West, which includes Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, has had the fewest COVID-19 deaths in England (1,157).
This will be for a number of reasons including those based on the region’s geographical demographics, such as the fact it is largely rural – with the second-highest proportion of rural population in the UK – and less densely populated than other parts of England.
Population density plays a significant role in infection rate, and therefore deaths. London has had 26,780 confirmed COVID-19 cases compared to the South West’s 7,524.
Data released by the Office for National Statistics on 1 May found the fatality rate of COVID-19 is six times higher among those living in major cities than in rural areas. No rural area of England and Wales had a death rate higher than 21.9 at the time of the study.
The ethnicity, and income of wealthy and predominantly white South West citizens may partially explain the lower infections and deaths. The region has some of the lowest unemployment rates and highest rates of house ownership without debt, 2011 figures show.
The ONS study shows that once you take the age of population into account, the rate of deaths involving COVID-19 is roughly twice as high in the most deprived areas of England and Wales as in the least deprived.
London – the epicentre of Britain’s outbreak – had the highest mortality rate, with 85.7 deaths per 100,000 people. In comparison, Weston-super-Mare has 11 deaths per 100,000 people.
Those living in poverty smoke and drink alcohol more and are more likely to be obese – all of which increase the likelihood of chronic health conditions.
They are more likely to have key worker jobs such as in a supermarket, public transport, or in hospitals, which means they are more at risk of exposure to the virus than someone who is able to work from home.
A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) released in May found black and Asian Britons are two-and-a-half times more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites, while an ONS report said black people were four times more likely to die when taking only age into account.
This affects how different locations are impacted by COVID-19. For example, in Newham and Brent, London boroughs with high mortality rates, ethnic minority groups make up the majority of residents in – 71 per cent 64 per cent respectively.
Members of ethnic minority communities are twice as likely to be affected by poverty, and are often hit the hardest by chronic diseases.
At the 2011 ONS census, the proportion of white people in the South West region was 95.4 per cent, meaning less than five per cent of people there are from an ethnic background.
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine and infectious disease scientists at University of East Anglia, said: ‘There are several possible explanations [for the hospital closure].
‘First, it could be purely random – even if you randomly scattered new cases across the UK there would be some places that appear to have more cases than elsewhere.
‘Second, with the increase in visitor numbers – more people who are still infected are going to the town and spreading the infection to other visitors and locals.
‘Third, a super-spreader visited the town for work or pleasure. Or fourth, an, as yet unreported outbreak, say in a care home that may have then spread outside the home.’
Care homes have been shut to the public since the start of the outbreak. But it didn’t stop at least four in ten care homes across the UK reporting cases of the coronavirus.
University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust said the closure was a ‘proactive step’ to keep patients safe.
Weston-super-Mare MP, John Penrose, suggested the closure was not a result of a spike in cases, but to clean the hospital.
He told MailOnline: ‘As I hope everyone would expect, I’ve been meeting local health chiefs to get to the bottom of this.
‘They say the hospital isn’t full and there are enough spare beds, but they’re worried about cross-infecting non-covid patients, so they want to stop new arrivals until they’ve deep-cleaned it and checked all the staff too.
‘They’re running tests which they hope will reveal the truth of it, so we should know more once the results come in.’
Mr Penrose added: ‘At the moment there’s no evidence to show if the outbreak is connected to visitors on the seafront or something completely different and, rightly, they don’t want to speculate or guess.’
Furious locals, however, have been quick to blame tourists who took advantage of the new lockdown rules, which allow people to travel anywhere they want in England and spend unlimited time outside.
The beaches in Somerset and elsewhere have been packed with tourists, fuelled further by rage that government official Dominic Cummings recently broke lockdown rules but has not been reprimanded.
On Facebook, one local said: ‘People start flocking to Weston, then cases spike in Weston.
‘It’s not rocket science to work out that cramming on the beach, not social distancing has played a big part in this. Stay in your own counties!
‘Many people would have gone to Weston with the virus and a lot more would have left with it and will now be spreading it around their own communities too!’
Locals told The Sun they blame the spike on swathes of ‘irresponsible’ families travelling to the town for the early May bank holiday.
Don Trapnell, 56, who runs a beachfront cafe in the town, added: ‘The beach has been absolutely heaving with people these past few weekends.
‘They were coming from all over, some from as far as Birmingham, which is more than 100 miles away. Madness.
‘You’ve got groups of friends and families all gathering here for the first time in months, drinking booze and their kids mixing with kids from other groups. It’s little wonder the town has seen an explosion in the virus.’
It follows Mark Canniford, Lib Dem mayor of Weston and member of North Somerset Council, criticising the ‘total disregard’ for the town’s residents from day-trippers.
Speaking to The Independent, Mr Canniford said he thought it was ‘unlikely’ for the crowds at the beaches to have caused an outbreak. But admitted ‘you can’t rule it out’.
Another local speculated VE day celebrations, on May 8, may have played a role because people gathered for ‘socially distanced’ street parties.
The resident said: ‘They blame it on tourists but loads got together to celebrate VE day, and this spike coincides with VE day – it’s not always tourists.’
It comes after experts said socialising on the anniversary of VE Day was responsible for a possible influx of Covid-19 cases – and warned that more hospitals could follow if the country does not heed official instructions to stay indoors.
Dr Bharat Pankhania, a lecturer in public health medicine at the University of Exeter, told The Sun: ‘They have got too many cases and it is unfortunate as it reflects what was going on two or three weeks ago.
‘It is activities like VE Day where people drop their guard that have led to new infections.
‘If people start to drop their guard they will get infected and it will lead to a rise in the transmission of new infections.’
Many Weston-super-Mare locals have called for lockdown restrictions to be re-tightened to protect seaside spots – and for people to use their common sense.
One said: ‘This easing should have said no going outside your home county just yet, ridiculous and I feel worse to come after this last bank holiday weekend.
‘The Government needs to restrict this easing NOW!’
Another added: ‘Weston didn’t have the virus bad till Boris said people were allowed to travel to exercise, now they are coming from all over the place.
‘He is partly to blame for this, but also the tourists.
‘Use your common sense – stay local to your own town, not travel a few hours away!’
Others called for more police presence.
One said: ‘Get police to stand around and stop all them stupid people from going on the beach – they’re all selfish people.’