Llast week we got a taste of things to come. As we head into the Covid-19 vaccine-free winter, we’ll all have to get used to a new routine where every Thursday the latest round of local restrictions are announced. Greater Manchester was not the first and we certainly won’t be the last.
When the Secretary of State for Health called Thursday afternoon to inform me of his intentions, I was not surprised.
After successfully advocating for better access to local data, we can now see most of what the government sees, and last week we were presented with a radically different picture than we saw a week before.
From nine of our 10 boroughs showing a declining infection rate, we now have an increase in these same nine and a high number of cases in the only one to register a decrease.
As we delved into the data, we were struck by a number of things. First, we have moved from isolated hot spots to more general transmission affecting both affluent and disadvantaged communities. Second, the speed of the increase was concerning: Trafford, for example, fell from nine new cases per 100,000 population to 40. Third, and more encouragingly, the only borough to record a drop – Rochdale – had already been submitted to similar restrictions. those proposed by the Secretary of Health.
Throughout this crisis, I have pleaded for a precautionary approach, health first. I said at the end of May that the lockdown was lifted too early and I think the predicament we find ourselves in today is related to that. But here we are where we are and, when Matt Hancock called, my first instincts were to support his step and bring it in as quickly as possible. Not easy for anyone, I know. But once the initial shock subsides, hopefully the public will accept the logic: a modest restriction now to prevent a lockdown later.
Having said that, I know it won’t seem modest to many in the Muslim community, whose plans for Eid have been disrupted. I can honestly tell them that I would do the exact same thing on Christmas Eve if I was presented with the same data.
What the government has not done is communications. Time and time again ministers have appeared in front of cameras to make announcements, and then there is a gap of hours, if not days, before the details come out. It happened again last Thursday night and threw many lives into chaos. It must stop.
In the future, full supporting documents should be made available as soon as a public statement is made. We also need to see the end of mixed messages. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of the shield people in Greater Manchester listening to the Prime Minister announce the end of shielding on Friday noon? So, within hours of a government request for people to stay in their homes, they are cutting home deliveries to the most vulnerable people and effectively telling them that they will have to start shopping again.
This is simply not true. The government must address this by immediately extending armor plating in areas affected by the restrictions until they are lifted and by providing funds for councils to continue home deliveries of food and medicine.
But the biggest changes needed relate to the NHS ‘testing and traceability system and the provision of financial assistance to those who are asked to self-isolate.
People are wondering: why are the poorest places in the north the most affected by this virus? Some on the right seek to put the blame on the people themselves and on different communities. We must not let them do this.
The truth is that in the restricted areas there are a large number of people in low paying and insecure jobs who cannot isolate themselves if the test and traceability system asks them to do so. They know they won’t get paid if they do, or worse, they risk losing their jobs. This helps explain why there is poor contact with the test and trace in poorer areas and why people are reluctant to provide contact names to tracers.
We raised this issue for many weeks, and ultimately it was recognized as a serious weakness in our defenses by a senior government figure. Dido Harding, the director of the NHS Test and Trace, said this week at a Confederation of British Industry event that there is now clear evidence that lower paid people find it difficult to follow guidelines . Ministers must listen.
We urgently need a simple national policy that allows all workers to self-isolate with full pay if asked to do so. It is up to the government to determine how this is paid with employers. As it stands, the absence of such a policy is a major flaw in our armor against Covid-19 and leaves our poorest communities dangerously at risk.
Also, how can we be sure that it is safe to reopen schools in our poorest communities in September when the testing and traceability system is not functioning properly?
So it was right to support the government this time. But if that doesn’t help these “red wall” sieges, it will be much more difficult to persuade the northerners to support more restrictions down the line.