Lancashire leaders reject hospitality lockdown and demand millions from government to cope with tougher lockdown
Lancashire’s political leaders have told the government not to close down the county’s pubs and restaurants – and have instead urged ministers to make it illegal for households to mix in all indoor and outdoor locations.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) has seen a letter from the region’s 15 council chiefs which calls for an expected tightening of Covid restrictions next week to focus on broadening the existing ban on household mixing within homes and gardens.
Currently in Lancashire, there is also strong advice that members of more than one household or support bubbleshould not meet in public venues such as pubs, shops and parks – but it is not legally enforceable.
The leaders’ request – which draws heavily on advice from the area’s three directors of public health – is a clear rejection of widely-reported government proposals for a hospitality lockdown across the North of England to combat surging rates of coronavirus.
The move follows two meetings in the space of 24 hours between Lancashire leaders and Downing Street officials, ahead of a planned announcement by the Prime Minister on Monday about the introduction of a three-tier system of Covid restrictions nationwide.
Several sources familiar with the local discussions told the LDRS that the letter - to Boris Johnson’s chief strategic adviser Sir Edward Lister - was sent after it was concluded that pubs and restaurants are not the primary factor driving coronavirus transmission in Lancashire, although they are considered to be playing a part.
The letter states that the impact on virus transmission of closing such venues would be "minimal", with only 14 percent of positive cases in Lancashire linked to hospitality. It advises that "where pubs, restaurants and other hospitality setting provide a Covid-secure environment, they should remain open".
It is understood that the government’s representatives indicated, as widely expected, that Lancashire is to be put into the most restrictive “tier three” when new rules come into force on Wednesday. However, it was not made clear whether all parts of the county would be categorised in the same way.
The possibility of variability in the regulations prompted the leaders to call for any restrictions – whether those suggested locally or any ultimately imposed by the government – to be introduced county-wide in order to create a consistent and comprehensible message to residents across all areas.
Lancashire’s leaders were also advised that there was no prospect of schools, colleges or universities being ordered to close – with one source telling the LDRS that a government official indicated that position would likely remain the case even if such institutions were found to be the epicentre of the county’s Covid infections.
There was a further suggestion that restaurants may ultimately escape any hospitality shutdown, but no detail about exactly how such establishments would be defined - and if they would encompass the many Lancashire pubs whose main business is serving food.
Lancashire's letter to government has also made a demand for a "fully-functioning, effective national test and trace system" with the necessary cash for more local involvement in the process. It is understood that there is a desire not just to track down the contacts of people diagnosed with Covid, but also make efforts to find the source of their infection – so-called “backward contact tracing”.
Currently, Lancashire’s district and unitary councils are charged with finding “complex” Covid cases, along with those people who have tested positive, but who cannot be located within 24 hours by the national system. However, local authorities still do not have a routine role in finding the contacts of those individuals.
A significant package of financial support has also been requested for communities and businesses affected by any tighter local lockdown restrictions – including a more generous job support scheme than that announced by the chancellor on Friday.
In common with most other Northern regions, Lancashire has said that Rishi Sunak's plan to pay two thirds of the wages of anybody whose place of work is forced to close because of tougher lockdown restrictions - as well as a £3,000 per month payment to such businesses - is insufficient. Local leaders want a discretionary business support scheme set up to help those firms that may legally be allowed to remain open, but whose business would be severely affected by any new measures.
The county has also demanded:
***£4m per month for a package to reduce the burden on the NHS by extending the current infection prevention and control support for care homes to domiciliary care, supported living schemes and day centres, as well as support for vulnerable children's services.
*** £1.2m per month for a package to ensure schools and education system remains supported and effective.
***£1m for a campaign to "win back public support" on the Covid regulations and to fund "behavioural insight work".
***£2m to fund additional enforcement of the regulations across the county, as well as the ability "to introduce the wider closure of mass gathering events perceived as a transmission risk; powers over indoor sports and after school activities; powers to close multiple premises or across a specific sector rather than individual premises, based on risk of infection spread in areas with high rates".
***Authority not to wear a face covering in regulated setting to be better controlled through issue of formal certification.
***Regulatory limits to be placed on retail based on the capacity to accommodate people in a Covid-secure environment.
The LDRS understands that a third meeting between government officials and six Lancashire leaders – representing the wider group - will be held on Sunday afternoon, in which the letter sent by the county will be the main topic of discussion.
There was rare unanimity amongst Lancashire’s council leaders over the content of the correspondence - after months of wrangling between them over the thorny issue of devolution - with the 15 chiefs telling the government: "We are not in agreement with any of the proposals that you have put forward and do not accept that meaningful engagement has taken place."
The government has been holding briefings with representatives of regions across the North in recent days, with Lancashire involved in meetings late on Friday and Saturday afternoon. At the first virtual gathering, leaders were asked to agree what parts of Lancashire they would like to see enter tier three restrictions - and any additional measures or support the county wants - by the close of Saturday.
It is understood that a request following the first meeting for the government to provide further detail on its current thinking - in writing for local leaders to consider - went unfulfilled. This had included a demand for further information on the entry and exit criteria for the different tiers and "evidence to support the impact of bars and pubs on driving infection rates".
The letter describes it as "unacceptable for you to request these decisions to be taken with 24 hours notice, and in the absence of clear criteria and evidence to support your proposition and the decisions required".
It adds: "We would argue that the essence of your proposals do not resolve the issues for Lancashire and, if this is genuine consultation, we need to explore alternatives."
If advice against household mixing in all venues in Lancashire is ultimately given legal force, it will address an anomaly in at least one part of the current patchwork of local restrictions across the North.
It was made illegal for households to mix in indoor venues in the North East last month, even though at the time, four Lancashire districts were in the top ten worst-affected areas of England for coronavirus – while the majority of areas in the North East were, at that point, outside the top 20.