Lancashire's new Covid restrictions confirmed - but strong hint that tougher measures are on the way
Lancashire’s pubs and restaurants are set to stay open - for now - after the county avoided being placed into the highest category of new Covid restrictions announced by the government.
The region will be classed as a Tier 2 area of “high risk” for transmission of the virus.
That means household mixing will be banned in all indoor settings – both homes and public venues –with the latter now becoming legally enforceable.
Currently in Lancashire, mixing is illegal – except for support bubbles – in dwellings and gardens, but there is only strong advice against it elsewhere.
The rule on multiple households gathering in gardens is also partially relaxed under this tier – it is now to be allowed, but still subject to the rule of six.
The new regulations will come into force from Wednesday, subject to Parliamentary approval.
However, the Prime Minister’s announcement on the new three-tier Covid measures brought with it confusion – both before and after it was made.
MPs were briefed, just hours ahead of Boris Johnson’s statement in the Commons, that the county was set for Tier 2 – but when he took to his feet, the Prime Minister said that “engagement” was ongoing with council leaders across most of the North West.
At that point, several Lancashire council chiefs confirmed that talks were continuing – but less than two hours later, the government issued a statement revealing Lancashire’s Tier 2 status.
A definitive decision for the county had been expected following four meetings between council leaders and government officials in as many days – including one just an hour before the Prime Minister spoke.
One source close to the discussions told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that the government had given the “strong impression” that it wanted at least some districts to be shifted into Tier 3. Another source agreed that such a move was still likely in the coming days – although that was before the late afternoon confirmatory statement.
County council leader Geoff Driver has since said it is “highly likely” more restrictions are on the way.
Lancashire leaders had been asking to see the exact definitions of each of the tiers since Friday, but had still not been given them even at a meeting earlier on Monday. It is understood that the government had asked councils to agree which areas they wanted to be placed into which tier.
However, leaders were holding out for a definition of the restrictions and a commitment to their demand for a multi-million pound package of support for the care and education sectors, businesses and enforcement of any new and existing restrictions.
The Prime Minister’s Commons address appeared to be appealing to leaders in all parts of the North West to agree to Tier 3 restrictions – which would include the closure of hospitality venues and a ban on mixing in all indoor and outdoor settings.
Lancashire’s leaders had specifically asked for the latter, but wanted to avoid the former – claiming that shutting pubs and restaurants would make only a “marginal” difference to Covid transmission.
Having praised the Liverpool City Region for signing up to Tier 3, Mr. Johnson turned his attention to leaders elsewhere across the North and said:
“I know how difficult this is. They, like us, are grappling with real dilemmas – but we cannot let the NHS fall over when lives are at stake.
“So let me repeat the offer that we’re making to those local authorities – work with us on these difficult but necessary measures in the areas that are rated very high [for Covid] in return for more support for local test and trace, more funding for local enforcement, the offer of help from the armed forces, and the job support scheme announced by the chancellor.
“I believe not to act would be unforgivable, so I hope rapid progress can be made in coming days,” the Prime Minister added.
However, the subsequent statement placing Lancashire into Tier 2 seemed to suggest that any government desire for a tougher lockdown in Lancashire had been abandoned – at least for the moment.
Yet some council leaders were under the impression late on Monday that talks were expected to continue in the coming days – meaning that moment could yet be brief.
Ribble Valley’s Conservative MP Nigel Evans said further discussions still made sense, even in light of the apparently definitive tier 2 status.
“I suspect the talks will be about what level of support is available for businesses.
“For instance, a pub with no beer garden is now going to have to rely solely on households or bubbles sitting together – that would be very difficult.
“But if they have the option of closing [even though they do not have to] or there is recognition that they can’t properly operate, so there is extra support for them, that’s the sort of stuff we want to do.
“Some people are falling between stools – they are technically allowed to open, but it won’t be economic,” Mr. Evans said.
However, Preston’s Labour MP Mark Hendrick said that the government announcement was a “sticking plaster for PR purposes”.
“Today’s exercise was brought about because of the anger from council leaders that the government wasn’t being upfront – they were leaking things to The Times to soften up opinion, rather than giving a statement to Parliament.
“The government knows that the system is a disaster because of test and trace and I think in the coming weeks, there’ll be regular revisions of the regulations – and I think that they’ll have little effect on the trend.
“Personally, I think it will lead to some other form of lockdown closer to Christmas,” he added.
Speaking on behalf of Lancashire’s 15 council leaders, Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver said: “The stark truth is that Lancashire has some of the highest infection rates in the country and it is highly likely that more restrictions are on their way.
“Our job is to make sure that we get the best possible package of support for Lancashire people and, as our talks with government continue, we will fight for that on your behalf.”
Separately, Lancaster City Council leader Erica Lewis said local authorities in the region were "still trying to negotiate for a solution which we think will save lives and protect the NHS".
"I'm not convinced the government is listening or is willing to do what Lancashire needs," Cllr Lewis added.
Meanwhile, Lancashire’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, made an appeal for perseverance.
“We have had restrictions on our lives since March and we are all tired, but with infections on the rise it is now more important than ever that we play our part to prevent its spread.
“Lives are at stake here, and it could be the lives of the people closest to you.
“The most important thing you can do when you interact with people you don’t live with is to keep your distance. Combined with regular handwashing and wearing a mask this vastly reduces your risk of getting infected or passing it on if you have it.
“I’ve got a simple message – hands, face, space actually works. Please follow it to protect you and those you love.”