The way in which the news broke about the whole of Lancashire being placed into Tier 3 restrictions at the end of the national lockdown next week happened in a way which typifies the chaotic way in which so many government announcements have been made.
I had a WhatsApp message flash up on my phone from a friend, it read “have you seen the news? Government tiers have leaked early on the website. We are in Tier 3! [angry emoji face]”. Clicking through the link I had time to check the whole of Lancashire was in Tier 3 before the website crashed due to volume of traffic as the whole of England checked their fate.
By the time Matt Hancock was stood at the dispatch box in the House of Commons, and I watched from my Westminster office as only 30 out of 650 MPs were lucky enough to be pre-selected to ask him a question and I hadn’t been successful in the computer-generated ballot of MPs. As the Health Secretary spoke my phone was ringing off the hook and the emails were flooding in from angry residents in Lancaster and Fleetwood.
When the Lancaster district has the lowest infection rate in Lancashire, and Wyre has the second lowest I honestly had not been expecting my constituency to be placed into Tier 3 restrictions. All week I had been making the case, as had local council leaders both Labour and Conservative, to split Lancashire across two tiers.
On Monday I was successful in the computer-generated list of MPs selected to ask a question to the Prime Minister and I challenged him directly in the House of Commons, making it clear it would be unfair if Lancaster and Fleetwood was placed in the higher tiers because other areas in Lancashire have yet to bring infections under control.
The following day, on Tuesday I met with junior health minister Ed Argar MP and explained the difference between North Lancashire where infection rates are lower and East Lancashire where rates are high. I stressed that there is very little movement between Lancaster and Fleetwood and areas like Burnley and Hyndburn.
Then hours after the announcement I was on a zoom meeting (whilst on the train home to Lancashire) with the same junior health minister who has assured me that when this decision is reviewed in a fortnight the government will consider treating districts separately from counties. In addition the decision will then be reviewed weekly.
Whilst I was doing this, our local council leaders both Conservative and Labour were making the same case in the meetings between local government and the UK government. There was a strong, clear consensus made from Lancashire to London that we felt it would be the right decision both for public health and the local economy, to look at Lancashire district by district and not treat our county as one homogeneous blob.
Why are we in this situation? Is it because it’s easier to keep counties together? That argument falls over when you look down south, for example Berkshire has been split with the town of Slough put into a higher tier than the rest of the county. Is it because of pressures on the local NHS? If it is I can come to understand and accept the situation, but surely if there was pressure on the Royal Lancaster Infirmary then given it serves South Cumbria why would they be in Tier 2? That doesn’t stack up.
Incidentally, the infection rate in South Lakes is twice that of Lancaster.
Which brings me to the comparisons of infection rates. The Lancashire districts with the lowest rates of infection are lower than almost all London boroughs when we see the capital is assigned Tier 2. Lancaster is lower than it’s historic rival York, yet our white rose northern neighbours are Tier 2. We are even lower than many Cumbrian districts which are just up the road. No wonder Lancaster, Wyre and other northern Lancashire districts are spitting feathers.
My ask to Government is this; look at Lancashire district-by-district. Get out of London and understand our communities. Lancashire looks in three different directions, with travel to work areas pointing into Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cumbria. As a consequence our infection rates often look more like the areas we border rather than those across the county.
If they can take the time to do this I am confident they will see the case to split the county across multiple tiers of restrictions makes sense, would be the right decision for public health and would give local economies a fighting chance in what has been an incredibly difficult year.
So on Monday morning I will leave my home in Lancashire (Tier 3) and travel to Westminster (Tier 2) which has a higher infection rate, and make the case for common sense to prevail.