A PUBLIC health chief has sought to explain why Cumbria appears to have one of the country's highest Covid-19 infection rates as new figures confirmed 49 people have died at hospitals run by the two NHS trusts which operate in the county.

The most up-to-date figures show that another five people have died at hospitals operated by the North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust.

It runs both The Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle and The West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven.

At University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Furness General Hospital and the Royal Lancaster Hospital, another six people have died.

The deaths are in addition tot he 38 previous fatalities reported by the two trusts.

The government's national 'dashboard' which is tracking Covid-19 deaths reveals that as of this morning the highest number of confirmed cases was Birmingham, with a figure of 650. It was followed by Hampshire, Sheffield and Lambeth in London. Cumbria has the tenth highest number of confirmed cases, with the figure recorded as being 380 - a higher number than many London boroughs.

Commenting today, Colin Cox, Cumbria's Director of Public Health, said: “This current rate of positive Covid-19 cases in Cumbria appears high compared to the national average; however these figures need to be treated with caution.

“The figures do not represent the actual number of cases of Covid -19 in the county.

"Testing is still mainly being done in hospitals at the moment; but the majority of people with symptoms are not in hospital so are not being tested. The number of positive tests is therefore just a small proportion of the probable actual number of cases. This is the same across the whole country.

“Because testing is not widespread in our communities, the number of positive tests reported depends very much on the number tests carried out. This varies across different parts of the country.

"Cumbria is likely to have done more tests per head of population than in other places, so is likely to have more positive tests per head of population.

“Cumbria also had its first cases quite early.

"There were only 24 cases in the whole country by the end of February. "Cumbria’s first cases were identified on March 3. This means that it is inevitable that Cumbria is slightly ahead of the pattern being seen in the country as a whole.

"It is also possible that the epidemic in Cumbria will peak earlier than elsewhere.

“Finally, the average age of the population in Cumbria is older than most other parts of the country, and therefore will see more positive cases due to Covid-19 affecting elderly people more significantly than other age groups.

“We are carefully monitoring all relevant statistics to get a better understanding of the pattern of the epidemic in Cumbria, which is still at an early stage.”

Mr Cox went on to stress the continuing vital need for social distancing

He added: “The current restrictions are inconvenient, but they are critically important. The thing to remember is that there will be a gap between social distancing starting and seeing any change in the rate at which people become infected because of the virus incubation period. Nationally it appears there are early indications that social distancing is having a positive effect and the number of new cases may be slowing. But it is still early days and people must continue to follow the guidance.”