Lancashire advised to stick with masks and social distancing beyond 19th July
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A final decision on that move will not be taken for another week, but Boris Johnson said at a Downing Street briefing yesterday that if England does move to the fourth and final step on the government's roadmap out of lockdown later this month, the “legal obligation” to wear a face covering in many public spaces will end.
However, he added that “guidance will suggest where you might choose to [continue to] do so, especially when cases are rising and where you come into contact with people you don't normally meet in enclosed spaces such as...crowded public transport”.
The Prime Minister added that the so-called “one-metre-plus” rule - which sees additional measures, such as screens, required to allow people to gather with less than two metres distance between them - would also go under step four, along with limits on the numbers allowed to meet indoors and the order to work from home where possible.
But Lancashire’s director of public of health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, said that it would be “wise” for the county’s residents to continue with the “basics” in relation to masks and social distancing "until we are in the clear from the point of infections and how it is affecting our communities - and until at least the point that more than 90 percent of our population is double vaccinated. He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that that would be the advice he would be giving against a backdrop of stubbornly high case numbers across the region.
“It [will] not be enforceable, but I think the people of Lancashire will do the right thing. We are not asking for any restrictions to remain in place on the economy, but the rate [in parts of Lancashire] is twice the national average - and has continued to increase in the last week.
“There are pockets in our communities [where] only one in two people are vaccinated with a second dose - and infection levels are incredibly high in our young people.
“We also know where infections are high and keep rising, this is a potential recipe for variants [to emerge],” said Dr. Karunanithi, who is responsible for public health in all parts of the county except Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen.
He added that he would also like to see testing to become "part of our normal life" while the pandemic continues.
Several Lancashire districts are currently experiencing a higher number of infections per 100,000 people than at any point since just after the peak of the county's third wave back in January. There were 6,201 infections confirmed across the 14 Lancashire council areas in the week to 30th June.
However, the number of people in hospital with Covid across the four NHS trusts wholly located within the county stood at 118 as of 29th June - a combined total which is less than the peaks each of them have experienced individually at points during the pandemic, which have ranged from 150 to 311.
Across Lancashire, 54 people died within 28 days of a positive Covid test throughout the whole of June.
The most recent data shows that an average of 63.3 percent of the population across Lancashire's 14 local authority areas has had a second jab - from a low of 52.6 percent in Blackburn with Darwen to a high of 74.7 percent in Wyre.
The Prime Minister said on Monday that the aim is for all over-18s to have been double-jabbed by mid-September and that the gap between first and second doses for the under-40s will be reduced from 12 to eight weeks to help achieve that.
Dr. Karunanithi said the notion of “freedom” being handed to people on 19th July compared to a life under continued restrictions was a “false dichotomy”, especially for the young, because of the “disruption to their lives and education” caused by high Covid rates amongst their number.
“It would not be fair on young people for all these restrictions to be lifted without clear advice,” said Dr. Karunanithi, who was speaking shortly before the Prime Minister’s widely-trailed statement in Downing Street.
“We already have a lot of freedom - all we want is to be free, safe and fair. I’m expecting the Lancashire public will have the common sense - and Covid sense - to pay attention to local advice.”
MASKS ON THE BUSES?
A group representing bus operators - including those who run routes across Lancashire - has criticised what it says is a lack of clarity about whether passengers should continue to cover their faces when they get on board.
The Prime Minister cited public transport as one domain in which people might choose to wear masks even though they would no longer be legally required to do so if stage four of the roadmap out of lockdown goes ahead on 19th July.
A spokesperson for the Confederation of Passenger Transport said that the planned end to social distancing would “allow buses to play a full role in the country’s recovery from the pandemic”.
“However, this is being put at risk by the confusing announcement on face coverings which passes the buck to operators unfairly placing staff on the front line in managing disputes.
“Operators have worked hard to make bus and coach travel safe during the pandemic and the Government should make it clear what the science is now telling them. If it advises face coverings are still required, then they should be mandated in all enclosed public spaces but if they are no longer required then there should be no guidance advising of their continued use.
“This confusion and mixed messaging will discourage people from travelling to work, to the shops or from visiting visitor attractions across the country, making it harder for local economies to bounce back and for bus and coach to play a role in reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality by taking cars off our roads,” the spokesperson added.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train-operating companies, welcomed moves towards a lifting of legal restrictions in a fortnight's time, saying: “It’s good to see government treating public transport the same as other indoor settings by recommending that face coverings are worn only in crowded spaces, whether that’s on a train or elsewhere. Travelling by train is low risk as carriages are well ventilated with air regularly refreshed either by air conditioning systems, or by doors and windows being opened.
“Of course, train companies will continue with extra cleaning and better information about how busy services are and we will support people who wish to continue wearing face coverings in future.”