Covid-19: Why is the R so high in Yorkshire?

  • By Harry Horton, Political Correspondent (ITV News Calendar)

When it comes to lockdown, everyone in the UK (well, England at least) has had to follow the same rules. But over the next few months that might start to change.

This is all because we’re slowly getting better at understanding the R-value.

First, a quick explanation: the R-value, or rate of infection, measures how many people an infected person passes the virus on to. If the R-value is 3, then one infected person will infect three others. If the R-value is 0.5, then it takes two infected people to infect one other. So with an R-value below 1, over time the virus eventually dies out.

For the first time this week, we got to see a regional breakdown of the R-value, based on data from a Public Health England (PHE) and University of Cambridge modelling group.

The study suggests the R for England is 0.75. In Yorkshire and the North East the R is 0.8 - the highest in the country and double London’s measure of 0.4.

Why? Well it’s not entirely clear.

Credit: Press Association

Some scientists I’ve spoken to say it could be because Yorkshire and the North East got the virus later than London, and so is still passing through the peak of infections.

Others speculate it could be because people in our region have been less obedient of lockdown rules than those in other parts of the country - a charge I’m sure we’d all strenuously deny!

Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis told ITV News it could be because of the “particular challenges” faced in the North: “I think that is likely because of existing medical conditions and generations of health inequalities. But I also think deprivation is a factor.”

The truth is we don’t know for sure - in large part because there’s so little data to examine.

One of the most frustrating things about coronavirus for scientists and public health officials (and journalists, for that matter) is how much we still don’t know about COVID-19, who’s had it and where it’s spreading.

Early on in the lockdown, there were concerns about a large outbreak of cases in Sheffield. Officials later said this was largely down to the fact one of the first drive-through testing centres opened near the city, and the high number of positive cases was therefore misleading.

Dan Jarvis has joined other regional mayors in calling for better regional and local data to inform decision making.

Credit: Press Association

The best we’ve got for the R value is using PHE’s regional groupings. The Yorkshire and the North East region is made up of more than a dozen counties and health trusts.

As the government continues to ramp up tracking and testing there’s an urgent need to get a much better idea of how the virus is spreading and which regions are particularly affected.

In his address at the weekend, the prime minister talked about the government being willing to “put on the brakes” if there was evidence of outbreaks in certain regions.

Officials say this is more likely to be a workplace or school being forced to close and staff and children told to isolate, rather than a cutting off a whole city or town.

But it stands to reason that as schools begin to open and more people begin to return to work, entire offices, schools or even blocks of flats could be forced into lockdown if outbreaks occur.