As many venues and businesses in Brighton and Hove reopen again after a terribly difficult year, my thanks go to the many of you working hard to ensure reopening can happen in a covid-safe way.
Preparations to welcome visitors are ongoing and council teams and community volunteers have been out in force helping to keep the city clean, including Surfers Against Sewage volunteers, who I joined for another beach tidy-up last weekend.
Helping to keep our beach, seafront and green spaces clean is crucial to protecting our environment and to keep our city looking its best.
Yet while this week should have been a chance to celebrate, the variant common in India (B1.617.2) – and now causing a spike in cases across the UK – is a clear reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
The government’s scientific advisory group SAGE has given a stark warning that, left unchecked, the new variant could lead to a surge in cases as bad as the one seen after Christmas.
Following news across the country, a small number of cases of the variant have been detected in the city.
Public health teams have exhaustively followed up cases – and to date, the cases are directly linked to overseas travel, with no community transmission.
Though case numbers are currently low, we are far from complacent. The data provided to us can be incomplete due to reporting delays.
So we remain alert to the potential growth of cases, especially as it is well known that B.1617.2 is much more easily transmissible than the strain we have become used to.
Scientific tests taking place this week will provide more information on the impact of the variant.
Yet despite the challenges of the past year, the failed “wait and see” approach that has typified the government’s slow response to the pandemic is on show once again.
Just this week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock made clear that certainty about the government’s response may only be known in a month’s time – even as scientists advise the new strain could become dominant in a matter of days.
While government seems intent to talk down the impact of the strain, I am clear that our city deserves better than “wait and see”.
Locally, the council’s ongoing efforts to stop the virus are intensifying. Preparations for increased testing have already begun and emergency planning exercises have taken place.
We continue to bring partners together to share intelligence, including NHS and emergency services, universities and community groups.
We are accelerating work to trace contacts in the city for positive cases, using local knowledge to track exhaustively. We are also providing more financial help and support to those who need to self-isolate.
We will also do everything in our power to request proper support from government to combat the new variant – including increased vaccinations, as necessary.
This is about more than just the variant, too. In the same week that many businesses reopen for the first time in months, it’s still vital we keep covid-19 at bay. That’s because even if the new variant is suppressed, the pandemic is still very much with us.
There has been a slight rise in covid-19 cases in the city recently – and we need to keep infections low. Many people, particularly those not yet vaccinated, are still vulnerable to the worst effects.
We need to remember there are still risks of passing on the virus and of long-term illness associated with “long covid”, especially among younger people.
So while I know so many of us have looked forward to the opportunity to meet friends and family indoors, I’m clear that the best way to continue to support our city and our loved ones and to keep businesses and schools open is to proceed with caution.
Though restrictions have eased, until the scientists can say with certainty what the new variant can do, it’s still better to meet outside if you can. If you do have to meet indoors, keep the space as ventilated as possible.
It’s also essential we continue to follow guidance around washing our hands, keeping a safe distance and wearing a mask.
As vaccination is one of the most important routes to suppression of the pandemic, I also want to urge everyone eligible to get vaccinated. Mobile vaccination teams are on the road again this week, as sessions in neighbourhoods across the city continue to take bookings.
Together, communities across our city have made amazing efforts over the past year to stop covid. We need to be very careful after all the hard work to not throw it away.
We owe it to one another to stay safe rather than sorry. Yet as we continue these efforts, I will not fail to call for the support our city needs to tackle the impact of new variants.
Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty is the Green leader of Brighton and Hove City Council.