A concerning spike in coronavirus cases in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taf has been put down to a mixture of socialising indoors, holiday travel and a failure to social distance from others.
Residents of the two local authority areas were last week asked by council leaders to immediately abide by voluntary measures – including only using public transport for essential purposes, working from home and not visiting care homes – in a bid to curb a further increase in new cases and avoid an official local lockdown.
As of Sunday, Caerphilly – put into a local lockdown last week – remained the area of Wales with the most cases per 100,000 of population with 85.
Merthyr Tydfil has 56.4 per 100,000 and has the second highest rate in Wales, while Rhondda Cynon Taf’s figure is 48.5.
For comparison, Wales’ weekly rate of infections increased to 21.4 for every 100,000 people on Sunday – up from 20.3 the day before and past the rate at which a quarantine would be imposed on a foreign country.
Wales’ health minister Vaughan Gething said the Welsh Government is working closely with each of the local authorities and public health experts to understand the case rises and put measures in place to control the spread of the virus.
Speaking at Monday’s Welsh Government press conference – on the day face coverings became mandatory in shops and groups of more than six people meeting indoors became illegal – Mr Gething issued an update.
He said: “There are many similarities between the rises in each of the areas, including socialising indoors and at home without social distancing and imported cases from holiday travel.”
“The situation in Merthyr Tydfil is more complex [than Caerphilly]. There is a cluster of cases linked to people working in a company; we are also seeing cases linked to Caerphilly borough, as well as those associated with socialising and holiday travel.
“In Rhondda Cynon Taf, the cases are largely centred on the lower Rhondda Valley and are again linked to people socialising without social distancing and returning from holiday. We also have a small cluster of cases linked to a caravan park.
“Both Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil local authorities introduced a series of local measures on Thursday to control the spread of the virus.
“We are working very closely with both local authorities to see whether further action is needed, including local restrictions.”
Public Health Wales confirmed last week that it was investigating a “small” number of cases of coronavirus at Merthyr’s General Dynamics plant, where around 250 people work to assemble armoured vehicles for the army.
A Public Health Wales spokeswoman said: “We manage any cases of coronavirus appropriately, including by providing advice around infection prevention and control, and by supporting contact tracing where required.
“We are currently monitoring a concerning rise in the number of positive coronavirus cases in many communities across Wales.
“The public are reminded that they have a vital role in preventing the spread of the virus.
“Maintaining social distancing measures – that is, remaining 2m apart from people who are not in your household, washing hands regularly and self-isolating when asked to do so – is absolutely critical in order to prevent further onward transmission of the virus, and to protect all members of society.”
In the announcement on Thursday, September 10, asking residents to adopt new voluntary measures, RCT Council leader Andrew Morgan said it was hoped that the new measures would collectively reduce the spread of the virus and avoid the need for a local lockdown.
Warning that circumstances could change at “very short notice”, he said: “A lockdown isn’t inevitable if we take these proactive steps now and ensure we all following public health guidance and social distancing.
“We still have the ability, through our individual actions to prevent formal restrictions becoming necessary.”
Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board and the two local authorities also recommended for residents and family members in households who were previously part of the NHS shielding scheme to ask their employers if it is practical to work from home.
Residents are also urged to assess the risks associated with their day to day life and avoid, where possible, crowded public places, particularly indoor public spaces. This advice does not mean the NHS shielding scheme, at this time, is restarting.
Merthyr Council leader Kevin O’Neill said: “We understand that these measures are not easy to adhere to, and may make our work and social lives a little more difficult, but they are absolutely essential for keeping our communities safe and for protecting ourselves and others – including the most vulnerable.
“If you are feeling unwell with Covid symptoms you must – stay at home, get yourself tested as soon as possible and self-isolate. A contract tracer will get in touch with you. It is essential that you follow their instructions to protect others. This means you must not leave your home for any reason.
“If you have been abroad and have returned from a country on the UK quarantine list, then you must not go out for 14 days. Having a negative test result within a 14-day isolation period does not mean you can end your isolation sooner than 14 days – please remain at home until it is safe to leave.
“Please help us to keep our communities safe.”