I am receiving many emails and phone calls from residents following the decision agreed between local leaders and the Government to place the whole of Lancashire, including Blackpool, into Tier 3 (the highest level of local restrictions). My mailbag is completely split (as it has been with other Covid-related issues and restrictions) with roughly half of people supporting the decision and half wanting fewer restrictions. I know that some of you would like a full national lockdown, whilst others want us to return to normal with no masks, distancing or restrictions. Everybody has their own opinion on what should be happening and the public health measures which are applied are never going to please everybody.
Since March the government has prioritised protecting people’s health and beating this virus. The balance between successfully doing this whilst keeping the economy going so we can protect people’s jobs is an incredibly difficult one to achieve. This is something which every major country is grappling with.
Throughout the summer we opened up as a resort following lockdown and our local economy bounced back well. We’ve had a great second half of the season and managed to open up to visitors safely whilst keeping Covid cases low. We knew that when autumn approached, this balance would get more difficult and so it is proving. Like other parts of the country (and other European nations), we have experienced a sustained rise in cases over the last few months.
Infection rates in Lancashire are among the highest in the country and continuing to rise rapidly. Rates are highest for those aged 16-29 at 552 per 100,000 people, while in the most vulnerable age group, those aged over 60, cases stand at 214 per 100,000 people. The number of patients with COVID-19 in intensive care beds in Lancashire has reached nearly half the number seen at the height of the pandemic earlier this year, and the latest data suggests there will be more people in mechanical ventilation beds in Lancashire within two weeks than there were in the first wave. This is as a result of infections which have already happened, rather than a prediction – underlining the need for urgent action now to prevent the epidemic in Lancashire rising even further.
It is clear that action is required now to prevent the number of cases rising exponentially and the pressure on our NHS becoming intense. I didn’t come into politics to impose restrictions on people’s lives but these are exceptional times. A second full lockdown would be a disaster: not just for people’s jobs and businesses, but for Blackpool as a whole. It would widen our health and educational inequalities and deepen the deprivation and social issues which we already experience. It must be avoided at all costs. If applying these additional Tier 3 restrictions now protects our NHS and avoids a full lockdown later in the winter then it will be a price worth paying.
As our local infection rate is below the average for the rest of Lancashire, I had hoped that Blackpool (and Wyre and Fylde) would remain in Tier 2 in the short-term so that those businesses which must now close (pubs, amusement arcades, etc.) could stay open during this busy time of year. I know how disappointing closing will be for those businesses and their staff. Remaining in Tier 2, however, would only have been a temporary measure, buying us a bit more time. We saw several weeks ago when the additional restrictions were applied in Lancashire (and Blackpool was excluded) that it only took a few more weeks before our local infection rate caught up with the rest of the county. Several weeks later, Blackpool duly joined the rest of Lancashire in having extra restrictions. If we had remained in Tier 2 now, the same situation would no doubt have occurred and for this reason it was agreed by council leaders and the Government that the whole of Lancashire should be treated the same.
Although I made my preference for Tier 2 clear, I have been speaking to Ministers all week about the extra financial support that Blackpool would need if we did in fact go into Tier 3. As such, I am pleased that an extra £42 million in support has been agreed. This includes £12 million for councils to deliver an enhanced track and trace programme and other targeted measures to combat the virus, and a £30 million package for businesses.
This extra money is of course on top of the new support announced by the Chancellor to protect jobs and support businesses whose premises are legally required to shut in Tier 3. This includes:
- An expansion of the jobs support scheme paying the wages of staff who cannot work. The government will support eligible businesses by paying two thirds of each employees’ salary (or 67%), up to a maximum of £2,100 a month.
- Increasing cash grants for businesses will also be increased to up to £3,000 per month
This is in addition to the £190 billion package the government has already provided to help support jobs and businesses through the furlough scheme, business grants, VAT reduction and deferral, business loans, reduced Business Rates, support for those looking for work and the increase in Universal Credit.
My focus over the coming weeks and months will be on ensuring that those businesses who have to close (or who are operating at reduced revenue) get the support that they need. The details of the support packages available to businesses which can stay open but who are experiencing reduced demand (such as hotels and B&Bs) will become clearer over the next few days and I will share further information when I receive it.
Whilst we all have a different opinion on what should be happening, the rules apply to us all and everybody has a part to play in protecting ourselves, our family, and our community by abiding by the restrictions. I know that the last 7 months have proved incredibly difficult for you and your family and that we have all made huge sacrifices as our normal way of life has been turned upside down.
We all want an end to this pandemic and I am obviously monitoring developments with a potential vaccine and new fast-track testing closely. I know that closing down businesses and parts of society cannot continue indefinitely and that if the developments which we hope to see with vaccines and new testing approaches do not materialise then we will have to completely review our national approach.
However, over the coming weeks and months I ask for your assistance in working together as a community to protect each other and to get on top of the virus once again.