Officials investigate coronavirus hotspot in West Midlands

Religion and fears of social isolation among suggested theories for region’s 28 deaths

Religious convictions and fears of social isolation could be leading to a sharp rise in the number of coronavirus transmissions in the West Midlands.

The government has said it is investigating a spike in deaths in the area, with one of the region’s NHS trusts reporting nine deaths from the illness, the highest for any trust in the country.

The health secretary confirmed the government was looking “very, very closely” at why a hotspot seems to have emerged in the region, where 28 deaths have been recorded so far. The majority of deaths have been of elderly and at-risk patients.

Matt Hancock, who said it was normal for there to be a particular density of cases in some areas, added: “There is a hotspot, not as big as in London, but there is a hotspot in the Midlands. It’s something that we’re looking at very, very closely to find out why, frankly.”

Coronavirus hotspots in Uk

A number of theories have begun to emerge to try to understand the high transmission rates in the region.

The Birmingham MP, Khalid Mahmood, said elderly Muslim and Sikh people in the area were struggling to adhere to government guidelines surrounding social distancing as they are driven by their religious convictions.

Despite most religious services being cancelled, some older people are continuing to attend mosques and gurdwaras to pray, said Mahmood.

He added: “Mosques and gurdwaras have told people to stay away but some of the older ones are really struggling. Part of it is because they feel religious observance is more important now than ever – they feel they may die and lose loved ones – so they need to pray. These are people who have incredibly strong religious convictions and it’s hard for them to stay away.”

Fears of social isolation and panic buying in supermarkets, with the public queuing next to each other for hours to pay for their goods, could also be contributing to the large cluster.

“For some of these elderly people the gurdwara and mosque is where they’ve always met their friends and they are finding it hard to give that up because they are scared of becoming socially isolated,” added Mahmood as he urged the public to do more to help the elderly in the community, setting up FaceTime chats so they could keep in touch with friends and helping them with praying at home.

Mahmood and a charity worker, Saidul Saeed, said panic buying could also be a contributing factor.

“I have no scientific evidence to back this up and it is wholly anecdotal but panic buying has been a particular problem in Birmingham and you’ve got all these people standing next to each other for hours in queues trying to pay, which is not going to be helping with infections,” said Saeed.

Robin May, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Birmingham, said Public Health England (PHE) would be analysing anything unusual in the area’s transmission patterns.

He said higher rates of death were expected due to population numbers and Birmingham being the country’s second city but that further analysis would be appropriate to rule out any activity which could potentially be contributing to the sharp rise.

“My gut feeling is that these are probably normal variations in the noise of the pandemic – we expect some areas to have more cases,” he said.

“That said, it is still really important to be on the lookout for anything unusual. PHE will be looking at the relationships between the contacts in individuals and those that have been infected. They will be looking for patterns among the cluster. Most likely there will be no connection but it needs to be investigated.”

London has so far been the area of the UK with the highest number of cases: the latest figures show the number of infected people in the capital has risen to more than 1,220, with 56 deaths.

However, a large cluster of deaths were identified in the West Midlands on Thursday, with the latest mortality figures from NHS England revealing three neighbouring trusts had recorded 21 deaths between them.

The Royal Wolverhampton NHS trust reported nine deaths, the highest for any trust in the country. The Dudley Group foundation trust recorded seven deaths, while Sandwell and West Birmingham reported five deaths. Walsall healthcare trust recorded one death.

This rise in the number of deaths accounts for 16% of the total for England, second only to London, which has 44%.

In a statement, the Royal Wolverhampton NHS trust said it was now routinely testing people who display respiratory illness symptoms for coronavirus “and, as is the case nationally, a large proportion of these tests are negative. In addition, a number of patients have been discharged from hospital in Wolverhampton and are safely isolating at home.”

It said the NHS and the council in Wolverhampton “will be writing to all vulnerable residents providing important guidance to those most at risk”.

The Health Service Journal reported that several sources have said the West Midlands pathology services are allegedly struggling to keep up with demand for coronavirus tests, leading to delays in results. It is not clear whether these delays in testing have been attributed to the sharp increase in deaths.

PHE West Midlands said there had been some delays. A spokesperson said: “Covid-19 testing is being prioritised for the most unwell patients that are in hospital, and so some previous sample tests from community patients who were well enough to remain at home have been delayed. We have activated national capacity and will process these community samples from this weekend and results will be reported to patients when they are available.”


Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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