MORE than half of all Covid cases in the North-East are from the now dominant Indian or Delta strain, a public health boss has revealed.

The fast-spreading variant of concern now accounts for 56 per cent of infections in the region, Newcastle public health director Eugene Milne confirmed.

Public Health England (PHE) announced on Thursday that the variant first identified in India had become the dominant form of coronavirus in the UK, overtaking the Alpha or Kent strain.

But while it now represents the majority of cases in the North-East, infection rates have not yet escalated here in the way they have in hotspots like Bolton and Blackburn – despite the variant’s greater infectivity.

According to latest PHE data, there were 149 confirmed or probable cases of the Delta variant in the North-East as of May 31.

While that is 68 more than in the previous week, it remains far lower than the 4,273 identified in the North-West.

Prof Milne told Newcastle City Council’s health scrutiny committee: “What we have not seen is an escalation in cases as a consequence of that [the Delta variant becoming dominant].

“More generally what we are seeing with the Delta variant is rapid spread within households.

“As long as we continue to try and contain spread beyond that, we are not seeing a particular rise in the population at the moment.”

Surge testing and vaccination services have been running in North Tyneside over the last couple of weeks due to an outbreak of the Delta strain.

Prof Milne added that Newcastle was recording 15 to 20 new Covid cases per day, with only two or three of those in higher-risk age groups over 65, and that the number of hospital admissions of virus cases was in “low single figures”.

He said that the city’s infection rate was 45 new weekly Covid cases per 100,000 people – compared to rates of 28 across the LA7 council areas, 24 in the wider North-East, and 34 for England as a whole.

Asked by committee chair Councillor Wendy Taylor if the relaxation of lockdown rules and people socialising indoors again had caused any rise in Covid cases, Prof Milne said that the impact had not been as great as he expected.

He told councillors: “If you had asked me a month or two ago what the impact of opening up stages in the roadmap would be on the overall numbers of cases, I was expecting to see more escalation than we have.

“Basically we have a pretty steady state at the moment in the city, it is not going up in that sort of way.

“It could still happen. There is clearly an issue, which has manifested itself in other parts of the country, of the greater infectivity of the Delta variant. 

“It has not impacted Newcastle in that way yet, I think it could still do that so I am not going to  make predictions about where we are going to be.”

In a statement on Friday morning, local council leaders said the North-East had “worked too hard to fall at the final hurdle”, urging everyone who is eligible for the vaccine to come forward and to keep following hands, face, space measures when out socialising.

They added: “If the data suggests it is too risky to relax restrictions further on June 21 then so be it.

"Far better to pause than rush ahead and risk a further damaging exponential rise in the virus, a further lockdown and the terrible impact that will have on people’s health, wellbeing and the economy.

“This region has lived with restrictions longer than most but you have all responded magnificently to the challenge. We have been heartened by the way communities have come together to support each other – businesses, volunteers, residents all working through the difficulties together.

“We are determined to keep the North-East open, protect our NHS and support our recovery from the pandemic and we are relying on you to allow us to do so.”

The statement was signed by the leaders of Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and Durham councils, plus the North of Tyne mayor and Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner.