MATT Hancock has said new measures are being put in place to protect care home residents from coronavirus as infection rates continue to rise.

The Health Secretary spoke about the levels of deaths among residents in the region during a visit to North-East on Monday.

Earlier this year it was reported that 21 people had died in Sandringham Care Home in Bishop Auckland, with 24 at Melbury Court in Durham and 18 deaths recorded at Stanley Park, Stanley.

The Northern Echo:

Matt Hancock at Shotley Bridge Hospital on Monday

Hundreds of new cases are being reported in the region each day and there are fears, coupled with cold weather and winter flu bugs, they could lead to more deaths over the coming months.

Mr Hancock said: “Obviously protecting people who live in care homes is a top priority especially because we know that they are the most vulnerable.

“We have stronger restrictions on staff moving between care homes and we are working the local directors of public to make sure that visitor policies are right.

“There is a massive benefit to visiting care homes as well so it is a difficult balance to get right. It is best done by working with local directors for public health and the care home themselves.”

Mr Hancock made his comments while at Shotley Bridge Hospital during a whistle stop tour of the region during which he also visited Bishop Auckland Hospital, University Hospital of North Tees and Darlington Memorial.

Figures show there has been a “significant increase” in confirmed cases of Covid-19 over the last week in County Durham, although hospital admissions for the virus remain low.

Amanda Healy, Durham County Council’s director of public health, said the current rate was almost 20 cases per 100,000 people.

Last week, nearby local authorities in Gateshead, Newcastle, Sunderland and South Tyneside were added to Government watch list, meaning they are on the cusp of being put into local lockdown.

Mr Hancock said: “We are working very closely with councils in the North-East and are watching very closely.

“We have seen the number of cases rise in the last couple of weeks. Clearly that is a cause for concern.

“The message to everyone is the same as it is nationally which is to: ‘please do your part, follow the new rule of six, wash your hands, cover your face where that is necessary and keep your social distance’.”

Mr Hancock said the Government did not see the need close schools, pubs and offices as it did in March when the first wave of global pandemic hit the UK.

Several cases of coronavirus have been reported among pupils across the region and one school has been forced to close.

He said: “So far we have seen a rise in cases, it is not as sharp as in March, but it is clearly something we have got to address.

“The information we have now is much better that we had in March because of the contact tracing system.

“We can see that majority of cases are caught from people who are socialising, not those at work and a relatively small number in school where we know children are safe.

“That is why we have brought in extra measures to try to reduce the transmission of coronavirus where people are socialising.

“It is not about assigning blame.

“I would say to everyone across the North-East that we all need to work together to keep this under control and everyone has got a role to play.

“Let’s all work together to have a safe winter.”