Daniel Jaines

Local Democracy Reporter

Daniel Jaines has been working as a journalist in Lincolnshire for over a decade. He joined Stonebow Media in 2018 as a Local Democracy Reporter, covering local authorities across Greater Lincolnshire for the BBC Local News Partnerships scheme.

Lincolnshire’s gritters have not been blessed ahead of going out this year due to concerns over COVID-19 — but council transport bosses say the tradition will carry on.

The annual blessings, carried out by Lincolnshire bishops since 2003, are supposed to use prayer in a bid to limit the number of accidents and other tragic events on the roads.

Bishops who carried it out the tradition previously have said there has been a “dramatic reduction” in the number of deaths

It’s the first time at least 10 years that the annual service has not taken place.

Gritters were deployed by Lincolnshire County Council on Friday following snowfall in the morning and ahead of sleet, rain and further icy weather this weekend, which is likely to cause treacherous conditions.

Further gritting runs are expected to take place.

Karen Cassar, assistant director for highways at Lincolnshire County Council, said: “Given the threat of COVID-19, we’ve been restricting visits to our depots and we didn’t think it was appropriate to gather people together for the blessing ceremony this year.

“We hope we can bring the tradition back next year.”

She said the teams were well prepared for the winter season and were monitoring the weather 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week.

However, she warned: “If you have to go out in wintry weather, please remember that grit isn’t magic dust, it takes time to work and treated roads can still be icy.

“Make sure you drive to the conditions.”

The council has 43 gritters on standby and more than 25,000 tons of salt in storage – last year the authority used 15,858 tons.

In an average winter, the council would expect to use between 18,500 to 20,000 tons

They cover 1,900 miles of road including all the A and B roads.

COVID infection rates in Lincolnshire schools have risen, but are still too low to justify closing them early, health bosses have said.

Professor Derek Ward, Lincolnshire County Council’s Director of Public Health, confirmed that the current seven-day rate of infection for school age children between November 26 and December 2 was around 161 per 100,000 population — up from 145 on Tuesday.

However, he said the rate was “significantly lower” than the overall rate for the county, which in Thursday’s figures was 267 (vs 155 England average).

He told BBC Radio Lincolnshire that children tended to have “generally mild symptoms” and that evidence was emerging that they’re “less likely to pass it on”.

Professor Ward explained the county would continue to see cases and closures.

However, “there’s less disease in schools, so if we’re not going to close garden centres, why would we close schools? It makes no sense to me.

“The impact on children of closing schools in terms of their education is massive, but it’s also massive in terms of their social connection with their friends and their mental well being.

“So, the government’s decision to keep schools open is a decision I absolutely agree with.

“If we do see a significant outbreak in a school, of course we will provide advice and support to that school.

“But we shouldn’t deprive the hundreds of thousands of children and young people in the county of education because we’ve got an outbreak in one school.”

As of Tuesday there were 16 schools in the county which had contacted Lincolnshire County Council to confirm positive COVID-19 cases.

University students are also leaving the city, and there are less than 30 active cases at the moment.

Lincolnshire received 20,000 lateral flow (rapid) tests for mass or community testing along with protective and IT equipment, local health bosses confirmed.

The county can get tests for up to 10% of the population (around 75,000 kits) but it doesn’t yet have the capacity or staff to do so.

Professor Derek Ward, Director of Public Health at Lincolnshire County Council, said the current allocation was “plenty for the short term”.

His team will look at where to focus the testing at an outbreak management board meeting next week.

These include “specific geographies, or population groups where we’re seeing a lot of cases and we don’t know why,” he said.

“So that might be a very small group of streets where we’re seeing lots of positives, but we don’t understand and we’d want to get in there […] and test [everyone] to see if any of them are asymptomatic.”

Other locations include “high consequence” settings such as children’s care homes, emergency services such as fire and rescue teams, and health and care settings.

Professor Ward, however, said the delivery would depend on capacity.

“We’ve got a finite number of nurses and a lot of the time those are helping with care home outbreaks,” but he added that if infection rates came down, those nurses could be redeployed.

People can also do the tests themselves.

Professor Ward also welcomed the vaccine news this week, but warned that initially they will be stored through United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust for now, because it is the only place with cold enough storage for the Pfizer Biotech vaccine (at -70℃).

He said further details were still expected on how mobile the vaccine can be delivered, though it’s hoped the upcoming Oxford vaccine would be easier to move around and supply to, for instance, GP practices and pharmacists.

“It’s really important that we don’t waste them, so if we’ve got vaccines in the hospital, it should be used first to vaccinate our hospital staff and people in hospital and then, when we can move it around, we start to vaccinate our residents.”

Professor Ward said now is the time to double down on following guidelines during the “tough winter” while the vaccine is handed out.

Infection rate up to Dec 3. | Data: GOV UK / Table: The Lincolnite

Yet health bosses are currently concerned about infection rates at a district level. They said lower population numbers can mean small outbreaks will have a dramatic effect and those outbreaks can remain on the books for a long time while as people self-isolate.

But their own numbers, are were more up to date than the public government dashboard, also show lower figures.

Care home outbreaks from 10 days ago are still on Boston’s figures for instance, similar with Lincoln — which will mean those districts could drop again next week if no further outbreaks occur.

There were 486 new coronavirus cases and 18 COVID-related deaths in Greater Lincolnshire on Thursday.

Boston has the second highest infection rate in the county with 547.2 cases per 100,000 of the population, a large spike since Wednesday’s rate of 501.6.

Lincoln came in ninth in the country with an increase from 371.6 Wednesday, to 385.7 Thursday.

Professor Ward said the general trend at a county level is still downwards, but not decreasing as quickly as it went up.

“Let’s not throw it away over the next few weeks and over Christmas. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, rollout the vaccine, get better testing models and it could work.

“I know our figures are coming down quite quickly now, which is great, so it’s all good news, but it could all change if we if we throw it away — so let’s stick with our messages.”

He added that deaths will remain high until at least next week because of the lag from the latest peak of the virus in terms of those worst affected.

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