The government has been accused of failing to act on early warning data in Bedford that showed a rise in Covid cases two weeks before measures were brought in.
Public health officials have claimed tests of the town’s sewage water had indicated a rapid rise in infections at the start of May, possibly linked to the Indian variant that was also hitting Bolton and Blackburn and Darwen at the time.
But despite seeing the potential for an outbreak in the 107,000-population, the government kept its focus on rising cases in the north-west to avoid claims the virus was having ‘localised’ surges that could derail unlocking the country.
Surge testing was introduced last week, but by that time Bedford was already had the second-highest rate of Covid-19 in England and was doubling every five days.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock this week said the town was the ‘next biggest cause of concern’ after the north-west, adding: ‘I would urge everybody in Bedford to exercise caution and engage in testing.’
A source told The Observer: ‘Wastewater analysis certainly did show a problem two weeks before Hancock decided we were a priority. They were very slow to respond to Bedford’s situation at a government level.’
Councillor Louise Jackson, Bedford borough council’s lead on public health and wellbeing, confirmed she had written to Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi over a week a ago to ask for a ‘rapid acceleration of the vaccination programme’ for the borough, saying the data was ‘deeply worrying’.
Reacting to claims of the government’s delay she told the publication: ‘We were second in the country in terms of infection rates and they were still talking about Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen.
‘Why on earth would you want to miss Bedford off the list? Unless of course you were doing it because we are so close to London. They didn’t want anybody to think it was anything other than a localised issue.
She also reiterated concerns aired last week that the government had not shared vital data about the whereabouts of flight passengers returning from India to the UK.
Some 20,000 people arrived in the UK between the detection of the Indian strain of coronavirus and when the country was finally added to the travel ‘red list’ on 23 April.
The government has since ramped up its programme to test sewage to assess the prevalence of different Covid-19 variants and now covers two thirds of England’s population.
The Department of Health and Social Care said the programme had helped identify the need for surge testing in areas such as Bristol and Luton.
The DHSC said: ‘We have worked closely with local authorities throughout our pandemic response and have always been transparent and open around sharing data to inform local decision making.
‘Once the variant of concern was identified in wastewater samples, it was shared with the local authority in good time and local action was rapidly taken.
‘Earlier this week, the government announced new decisive local actions, including in Bedford, to halt the spread of the variant of concern first identified in India.
‘This includes enhanced genomic sequencing, surge testing and driving vaccine uptake in most affected areas.’