THIS weekend is, in some ways, the final way under the toughest of lockdowns.

Although the ‘Stay At Home’ order is set to be in place until March 29, primary age school children return to the classroom on March 8, with secondary and college pupils going back that week, with arrangements differing between each school.

Additionally, from Monday, care home residents can have a designated visitor who will be able to hold hands with a loved one indoors.

With those moves in mind, it feels like the pace of that return to normal is exponentially growing.

So, how is Cheshire’s coronavirus response on the eve of the first tentative step back?

How are hospitals coping?

The NHS has been applauded for its efforts throughout the crisis, but it’s still possible to be surprised at the work they do a year into the pandemic.

NHS England data released on Friday (March 5) revealed that the three Cheshire NHS Trusts have not only coped with huge demand on beds — peaking at 610 patients January 19 — it has also ridden out the storm, so to speak.

The data showed a 69 per cent drop in the number of admissions from early February to early March, going from 441 across the three divisions to just 135.

Knutsford Guardian: How bed occupancy rates have changed since August. Data: NHS EnglandHow bed occupancy rates have changed since August. Data: NHS England

Naturally, the hard work of the public is also an element in this fall, with admissions two to three weeks behind case numbers.

Cheshire West and Chester’s current infection rate is 94.1 cases per 100,000 people, a fall of 21 per cent from the previous week.

In Cheshire East, the infection rate is 83.8, a fall of 19.5 per cent from seven days prior.

These rates are around the England average, but the percentage changes are slightly below the English level of 27.1 per cent.

Has the vaccine programme hit a snag?

It could be sensible to assume so, given the reveal that the Department for Health was ‘throttling back’ supply to the area for a fortnight from February 17.

That was first suggested by Labour CEC leader Sam Corcoran, who told a full council meeting: "The vaccination programme, organised by NHS Cheshire CCG and local GPs, is going exceptionally well and more than 90 per cent of those in the top four priority groups have been vaccinated.

“Many primary care networks have moved on to vaccinating those over 60.

“However, because the local vaccination programme has been done so well, it is understandable that the decision has been taken centrally to throttle back the supply of vaccines to Cheshire East.

“I am assured that the vaccine supply will improve by March.”

Knutsford Guardian: How areas of Cheshire and Merseyside compare in jabbing over-65s. Data: NHS EnglandHow areas of Cheshire and Merseyside compare in jabbing over-65s. Data: NHS England

At the time, a government spokesperson commented: ““Parts of the country have made very significant progress and have vaccinated faster than average. We’re putting more supply into areas that have more to do, with the NHS doing brilliantly to deliver the amount of supply we have.”

So, in that throttled two weeks, how was progress?

In a word: rapid. In Cheshire and Merseyside, as of February 28, 42 per cent of adults have now had their first dose — an increase of five per cent compared to the previous week, when 37 per cent of residents had been reached.

Jabbing five per cent of a region’s adult population in a week is breathtaking, in some ways, but it also fuels hope that everyone over the age of 16 will be done by the end of July.

In the past, Clare Watson, Accountable Officer of NHS Cheshire Clinical Commissioning Group — the body running the roll-out — has been assured in her public appearance predicting good vaccine news.

She said on February 24: “We are confident in terms of capacity, in terms of primary care network sites, and in terms of vaccination centres that we have the right capacity overall.

“The big challenge is cohort 10, which is 16-49 year olds by July 31. We understand that that cohort is going to be age-stratified and risk-stratified in the coming weeks because they do not want to open it up in one go.

“We are on track to deliver that. We have got great workers and lots of capacity to vaccinate patients.

“They will all be offered their vaccine by the end of July.”

Knutsford Guardian: The age bands who have surged ahead in getting their first doses. Data: NHS EnglandThe age bands who have surged ahead in getting their first doses. Data: NHS England

It now looks as if that belief was well-founded, especially considering the fact that 95.4 per cent of Cheshire’s over-65 group have had dose one — ahead of the Cheshire and Merseyside average of 93.6 per cent.

Despite‌ ‌the‌ ‌rapid‌ ‌progress‌ ‌in‌ ‌vaccination,‌ ‌health‌ ‌chiefs‌ ‌are‌ ‌still‌ ‌keen‌ ‌to‌ ‌remind‌ residents‌ ‌that‌ ‌lockdown‌ ‌restrictions‌ ‌are‌ ‌in‌ ‌force‌ ‌—‌ ‌and‌ ‌must‌ ‌be‌ ‌followed‌ ‌even‌ ‌if‌ ‌you‌ ‌have‌ ‌had‌ ‌both‌ ‌doses‌ ‌of‌ ‌your‌ ‌vaccine.‌