Counties could be split by new local lockdown tiers today as MPs call for rural wards to be given looser rules than towns and cities being hit harder by Covid-19 as Government data shows infection rates are dividing communities in Kent, Leicestershire and Lancashire.
Health chiefs will meet today to review the restrictions for the run-up to Christmas and are expected to be heavy-handed. Cases are rising again nationally and the effects of November’s lockdown have all but worn off in parts of the country, with more than 34million people now living under Tier Three rules.
But MPs from across the country have called for their rural residents to be cut some slack from draconian policies, with people living in ‘zero Covid’ villages lumped under rules triggered by outbreaks in nearby towns or cities.
Kent MP Tom Tugendhat is advocating for the county to be split into sections so people living in the countryside in his constituency can have more freedom. Kent is in Tier Three because Medway and Swale have some of England’s highest rates — but Department of Health figures show case numbers are rising even in smaller areas, proving that outbreaks can leak out into smaller communities.
In Lancashire and Leicestershire there are calls for some areas to be released from the toughest restrictions, with millions having been forced to live under strict curbs for months on end.
And data shows that counties in the South East – England’s new hotspot – are divided, with cases high and rising in the towns but much lower in the greener areas around them, with splits potentially on the cards for East and West Sussex.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock this week admitted the Joint Biosecurity Centre would consider splitting areas in pursuit of fairness, and Essex and Hertfordshire have today seen parts of the counties put into Tier Three with others kept out.
Broad brush tactics have been repeatedly criticised and the Government now appears to be aiming for a more refined approach to target only the worst-hit areas.
It comes as ministers today made clear that Christmas bubbles will not be scrapped in England — despite urging families to wait until Easter to meet up. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted there will be no change to the legal rules underpinning the five-day festive easing south of the border, saying the government should not ‘tell people how to come to a decision’.
The official infection map of Kent shows that some areas in the north of the county, such as Medway and Swale, have some of the highest Covid rates in the country (darker colour shows higher numbers of coronavirus cases), while areas in the south are less badly affected
Tonbridge and Malling MP, Tom Tugendhat
Kent became the first part of southern England to be thrust into Tier Three rules when they were put in place on December 2.
Rates in Swale and Medway were rocketing at the time and remain some of the highest in England now, at 673 and 640 positive cases per 100,000 people in the week to December 10 – a combined 2,793 positive tests.
But Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge and Malling to the south of Medway, is calling for a more local approach.
His entire constituency is in Tier Three but some areas have rates significantly lower than the England average, such as Hadlow & East Peckham and Tonbridge Higham Wood, which have seen only 13 cases each in the most recent week.
Mr Tugendhat said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: ‘We’ve got to look at communities within our country as relevant to the people living there and not simply blanket approaches across the entire county.
‘In a county like Kent which is 1.9million people, so over half the size of Manchester or about a quarter the size of London, treating it as a single entity is not entirely practical.’
He said breaking down even one constituency into smaller areas showed ‘distinct differences’ in outbreaks.
‘In some of the wards that I’m lucky enough to represent you’ll see zero cases of Covid at all,’ he added, ‘because this is still, sadly, very much more of an urban and metropolitan sickness than it is rural.
‘Many of the rural areas have much lower rates of infection because of population density and much lower travel between areas.’
MPs have made the same claims across the country, notably about Leicestershire in the House of Commons yesterday.
Leicester and some areas around it have never truly been freed from lockdown rules since the first wave ended in May, with some form of restriction having been placed on the city all year because of stubborn infection rates. The whole county is currently in Tier Three.
But MPs in some areas are frustrated by lockdown rules triggered by outbreaks in the city and suburbs.
Revealed: England’s REAL Covid hotspots
Part of an island off the coast of Kent is currently suffering England’s worst Covid-19 outbreak, according to official figures.
Sheppey East — in the Tier Three borough of Swale — had an infection rate of 1,652 cases for every 100,000 people during the most recent week.
For comparison, the Department of Health says the overall figure for England in the same seven-day spell ending December 10 was just 184.
Six other wards across the nation had an infection rate above 1,000 over the same week, including two in Basildon — which entered Tier Three today.
Haltwhistle and Bardon Mill in Northumberland had the second biggest outbreak in the most recent week, with 1,138 cases for every 100,000 people.
The data only includes positive tests and is broken down into Middle Super Output Area, which are smaller wards within authorities and home to around 7,000 people.
A weekly infection rate of 1,000 cases per 100,000 people means 1 per cent of the area’s population caught the disease in seven-days.
Positive Covid tests per 100,000 people (week to December 10)
Haltwhistle & Bardon Mill
Stoke Heath, Finstall & Bentley
Rochester South West
Stafford North East
Laindon East & Lee Chapel North
Hedingham, Gosfield & Greenstead Green
Cathedral & West Common
Kirkhams & Holyrood
Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton, has pushed for her constituency to be ‘de-coupled’ from Leicester city, along with other areas, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday confirmed they would be considered in isolation.
Ms Kearns said in a tweet yesterday: ‘I’m grateful & relieved that @MattHancock today confirmed to me in the House of Commons that Leicestershire will be tiered separately to Leicester after weeks of concerted lobbying by myself & colleagues That doesn’t mean auto leave tier 3 as still have much work to do locally.’
She added: ‘If we remained tied to Leicester City, even if our rates plummeted we’d have to remain in the same tier as them. That won’t happen anymore thanks to my lobbying.’
Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, wrote: ‘Matt Hancock just confirmed in the HoC the assurance he gave me at the weekend. Leicester and Leicestershire will be looked at separately. We are being decoupled from Leicester and should be in Tier 2 soon if infection rates remain low. Result’.
Department of Health data shows that infection rates vary across Leicestershire, with the highest numbers of cases in the city itself (256 per 100,000), Oadby and Wigston (256), Melton (225) – part of Ms Kearns’s constituency – and Blaby (218).
More rural parts of the county, however, have much lower rates of infection but face the same lockdown rules.
In Mr Bridgen’s constituency of North West Leicestershire, for example, the infection rate in the week to December 10 was half that of Leicester city, at 126, and it was up only seven per cent on a week earlier.
And in Charnwood the rate was 124 and falling, while it was 133 in Rutland – also in Ms Kearns’s constituency.
Broad brush tactics sweeping rural areas up in county-wide lockdowns triggered by outbreaks in towns and cities have angered MPs regularly since the tiering system began.
In a move that may reassure local officials, Matt Hancock indicated in the Commons yesterday that the Government and Joint Biosecurity Centre would be willing to consider splitting counties to make rules fairer.
Speaking specifically about Leicestershire in response to Alicia Kearns’s question – but hinting at a precedent that could be used across the country – Mr Hancock said: ‘I would say to residents in Melton and Rutland that we will look at Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland separately when we make the decision on tiering on Wednesday.
‘Those in Rutland who are in Tier Two still need to work at it and do their bit to try to keep Rutland in Tier Two, and, of course, hopefully get to Tier One. It is so important that everybody does their bit.’
County splits have come into force today, as parts of Essex and Hertfordshire have entered Tier Three rules, along with the entire of Greater London.
Tier Three rules have been brought in in 11 areas of Essex including Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow and Chelmsford – while other parts of the county remain in Tier Two – and in four places in Hertfordshire; Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and Three Rivers.
There are hopes that the precedent set in those areas will be applied to some in Lancashire, where infection rates range from 299 cases per 100,000 people in Burnley and 243 in Blackburn with Darwen, to just 108 in Fylde and 125 in Lancaster.
Nigel Evans, the MP for Ribble Valley where there were 129 cases in the most recent week (rate 212), told the BBC: ‘I hope that Lancashire is split with those areas with lower rates of infection, including the Ribble Valley, being moved into Tier Two and those with Covid rates remaining in Tier Three.’
Infection rates are not the only measure officials look at when deciding on whether to push places up through the tiers, and these places may have been included because they are closely connected to London, where the entire city is in lockdown.
The rate of increase is also a key measure and, according to Public Health England’s latest data – for the week ending December 6 – cases are on the up in at least 62 out of 149 local authorities.
At least 33 areas saw rises of more than 20 per cent in that week in the number of cases per person meaning that, if the situation has not improved, many more places could be staring down the barrel of Tier Three tomorrow.
East and West Sussex are a good example of where cases are divided between towns and the countryside.
Department of Health data showed that, in the week between December 2 and December 9, Hastings in East Sussex had the fastest increase in cases of anywhere in England.
Cases there more than tripled from 114 per 100,000 to 372.
Two boroughs of neighbouring West Sussex, Crawley and Worthing, were also among the top five authorities in the country during that week.
Infections more than doubled in both areas, rising from 42 per 100,000 to 102 in Crawley and 25 to 59 in Worthing.
But data shows the counties’ epidemics are being driven by a select few hotspot areas, with more than a dozen rural villages and towns recording fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 population.
The MP for Hastings and Rye, Sally-Ann Hart, warned last week that East Sussex was ‘on the brink’ of being plunged into the toughest curbs in England.
‘I am very concerned by the sharp and sustained rise in Covid-19 cases across Hastings and Rother,’ she told the Worthing Herald.
‘Having spoken to the local director of public health, there is now a real anxiety that we could see a prolonged period of high infection rates as seen in North Kent. If this is the case, then our area is now teetering towards Tier Three restrictions in the coming weeks.’
The fastest spike in Covid-19 infections in England was recorded in three areas of the historic county – Hastings, Crawley and Worthing – among those under Tier Two in the seven-day spell to December 9, according to the latest figures published by the Department of Health