ITV Granada Political Correspondent Hannah Miller speaks to those tackling Covid in Oldham
On a quiet cul-de-sac in Oldham, there’s a hi-vis invasion. A small army of community swabbers, kitted out in personal protective equipment, bearing leaflets and a supply of Covid testing kits.
They’ve come here because a small number of infections have been identified in the neighbourhood, an attempt by the council to pick up cases early and limit any further spread. But despite the serious task in hand, the mood is jovial. The testing team are accompanied by community engagement officers, who help to explain the latest local restrictions and check people are ok.
Each knock on the door reveals its own story. The man whose cancer treatment has been delayed, the family who couldn’t get a test when they needed one a few weeks ago. A couple of families don’t open up as they say they’re already self-isolating. On the whole, people go ahead and allow themselves to be swabbed, but one person can’t be persuaded. She doesn’t want to know if she has the virus because she’d have to isolate.
The approach is backed by the Department of Health, despite national Government guidelines having withdrawn asymptomatic testing elsewhere. It’s credited by some of the team with having helped to bring down the rate of infection, though numbers are now rising again and the council line is that it may be too early to know.
In a pre-Covid world, those doing the rounds on the doorsteps are librarians, admin workers and even entertainers.
They’re accompanied by health workers like Debra Madden, who works as a social prescriber for the charity Action Together, specialising in mental health. She says many people in the town are ‘desperate’ and don’t know where to get support - the knock on the door may be the first person they’ve spoken to for weeks.
At Royal Oldham Hospital staff have already seen an increase in mental health patients turning up at A&E - and they believe the numbers of people needing support will continue to grow. Karen Maneely, who heads up mental health services for Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust, says much of the increase is down to people living in precarious financial situations, with poverty and debt the main driver of the rise in mental health need.
But people in Oldham have also been living with social restrictions for more than two months, banned from having people round to their home or garden, as across the rest of Greater Manchester, parts of East Lancashire and, more recently, wider areas of Lancashire, Merseyside and Warrington as well.
Unlike the rest of Greater Manchester, Oldham has additional restrictions of its own - a limit on the number of people who can attend a funeral (20, instead of 30), and advice against using public transport as well. Six weeks ago the Health Secretary also said people shouldn’t meet outdoors in the park, though that advice has been removed from the Government website and it is unclear if it still remains in place.
Even local politicians are confused as to what rules apply. The Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, Jim McMahon, wrote to the Health Secretary asking for the town to be brought into line with Greater Manchester as a whole, only days later Matt Hancock suggested there was already no difference between the boroughs.
The Deputy Leader of Oldham Council, Arooj Shah, is quite clear the restrictions are not working, but stresses people should continue to follow them while they remain in place. It is clear the effort she has to put into relaying guidelines with any conviction, given the continuing rise in infections. Of course we don’t know whether the infection rate would be even higher without the rules in place, but she says telling people not to socialise is ‘not natural’, and points to sorting Test and Trace as the answer.
Arooj describes ‘anger, frustration, fatigue and anxiety’ in the town - and says that people also need hope. She’s not the first person to say that among those we speak to in the town - like many across the North West, who have barely been released from restrictions since they were first introduced, there’s a need to see something to work towards, a way out from the rules. Many suggest it is the Government that needs to set that out.