'We've had a little taste of what happens, it's not too late to get it back under control' - Gwent health board chief

Dr Sarah Aitken says she believes it's not too late to stop a second wave being as bad as the first. Credit: ITV Wales

"A repeat of Wales' first wave of coronavirus isn't inevitable, if we all stick to the basics of washing our hands, abiding by social distancing and keeping to the rule of six."

Dr Sarah Aitken, interim medical director at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board - the first Welsh health board area to deal with coronavirus back in March.


In an interview for ITV Wales's Sharp End, Dr Aitken said at the height of the first wave they had to increase their intensive care provision to its maximum. They needed lockdown to work to help them manage, which it did, but she says it "left everyone with a respect for this virus, it makes people very unwell."

Dr Aitken admitted that September isn't usual virus season and health bosses hadn't been expecting a second wave to arrive quite so early.

"It's sense of we've been here before, but it's not inevitable. We had this virus under control over the summer. I was asked often has the virus changed, or gone away, being a public health doctor I knew it hadn't gone away it was just we had very effective control measures in place and we've relaxed too much.

"In particular we've moved what was ok outdoors inside and the virus has shown us it's as infectious as ever and we are now starting to see small, but increasing numbers in our hospitals and it's only a matter of time before we see people in intensive care."

Dr Aitken says she believes that people have to be serious about track and trace and support the system to do its job in order to stop the virus spreading.

Caerphilly was the first local authority area in Wales to have a local lockdown enforced Credit: PA

There's already a lockdown in the Aneurin Bevan Health Board area - Caerphilly has been under stricter restrictions for since September 8th, but Dr Aitken says that while it's very early to say for certain, that data suggests the lockdown is working.

"Scientifically, I think there's every reason to believe we can get on top of this if we all do the basics of wash our hands, when we're indoors stay two metres apart or wear a face covering. If we get symptoms isolate straight away and get a test so that our contacts can be notified and advised if we are positive.

"It's actually that basic and if we all did it we would get the virus under control and we'd get it under control without the very restrictive lockdown measures that we had earlier in the year that interfere with everybody's lives."

The Grange University Hospital was originally due to open next spring. Credit: ITV Wales

During the first wave, departments such as cancer care, orthopaedics and others were put on hold, and the health board is only just getting those areas back up and running again. To avoid having to halt them a second time and prepare for the usual winter pressures, the health board has a plan - opening its £350million critical care centre six months early.

The Grange University Hospital has been more than a decade in the planning, but is now needed more than ever. It's due to open in November, and health bosses intend to move all critical care patients into the new facility so that its other hospitals can continue to function normally during any second wave.

For that plan to take place, the health board needs to be able to move all their intensive care facilities to the new site and Dr Aitken warned that they won't be able to do that if there are too many people in intensive care.

"Getting into this building before the virus probably, fairly inevitably, starts to have a bit of resurgence in the winter makes a massive difference to this health board in terms of being able to keep everything else going.

"Originally we thought we wouldn't move in just before winter, we'd do it in the spring, but that balance of risks has changed because of the Covid situations o we are moving in early and working our way through fast and detailed planning to do that. The thing that will mean we can't move is if we have too many patients in intensive care to move. it's a very practical problem.

The new hospital is mostly single rooms, which will help deal with infection control. Credit: ITV Wales

"To my medical mind, being a bit more disciplined about our social lives in order to keep the virus under control to enable children to go to school and people to keep their jobs and the health service to provide services for people with cancer and heart disease would be a price worth paying.

"I think people genuinely thought it had gone away. Having spent many years in public health, I knew it was because of the control measures. We've had a little taste of what happens, but it's not too late to get it back under control. I think now that people have seen for themselves, that if you let up, it comes back. Hopefully we can all get behind keeping the discipline of keeping the virus under control."

The health board learned a considerable amount during the first wave, including the importance of early intervention and just how infectious the virus is.

"The virus doubles, if it's not controlled it doubles every three days. And that's what we experienced in March. We could see in our hospitals, the virus doubling every three days, it was really happening, And that's why we started saying to the public, we are seeing what happened in Europe and we need to you take on board what you are being asked to do in terms of the lockdown.

"In the Gwent area, it really worked. People were absolutely brilliant and then it came down. I will be forever grateful to the people who live locally that they took it so seriously and they saved the day because we came close to exceeding what we could do in our intensive care unit."

You can see more on this story on tonight's Sharp End at 2245 on ITV Wales.