North East leaders have revealed serious concerns over "too high" Covid-19 cases and the prospect of local hospitals being overwhelmed, after holding crunch Tier 3 lockdown talks.
Crucial discussions on the region’s coronavirus status were held on Thursday afternoon between council leaders in Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and County Durham, plus those from the Tees Valley area.
Teesside is poised to move up to the ‘Very High’ Tier 3 alert level, with leaked correspondence showing that the government requested at 11pm on Wednesday that the shift happens within 48 hours.
And while the seven areas in the north of the region are not at that stage yet, senior local sources say they believe ministers could push for an escalation to Tier 3 here next week.
In a statement issued on Thursday afternoon, local leaders said that case numbers have been plateauing in recent days but are still too high – while Covid-related hospital admissions continue to climb.
They now plan to talk to the government about “what more needs to happen for infection rates to continue slowing” and that “all options remain on the table”.
The admission that tougher action may now be needed comes just three days after the region’s leaders vowed to “resist any attempt” to impose Tier 3 measures.
In a statement on Monday afternoon, top political figures from across the North East said Tier 2 was the right alert level for the region, that Covid-19 rates were continuing to level off, and that the government accepted that existing restrictions have had success in curtailing the spread of the virus.
But the backing for Tier 2 measures to continue was notably absent from Thursday afternoon’s update.
The statement read: “Since we introduced restrictions on September 18, thanks to the collective efforts of the North East, we have seen the rate of Covid infections slowing down but sadly they are still too high.
“Action taken locally in September worked and has helped us to remain in Tier 2. We have gone from being one of the areas with the worst rates of infection to being more in line with what is happening across the UK.
“Our Directors of Public Health met with the Chief Medical Officer yesterday (October 28), who agreed our region’s data was plateauing, but it is clear the situation the North East still finds itself in is concerning.
“In particular, NHS bed occupancy has continued to climb. Although we have not yet suffered the pressure seen in Liverpool and the North West, we have serious concerns that we could be heading for a strain on the health service just as winter begins to bite.
“We need to redouble our efforts to reduce social contact in whatever setting we find ourselves and we also need the Government to give us the support we need and have been asking for since May.
“We asked for control over test and trace, business support and greater enforcement powers which, had we had at our disposal we may have been able to slow the virus further. That wasn’t forthcoming.
“Our engagement with government will continue to not only focus on these areas but also on what more needs to happen for infection rates to continue slowing.
“Public Health remains our number one priority. We have seen a number of outbreaks in workplaces and with hospital admissions rising, all options remain on the table to protect the NHS and our communities.”
The joint statement was issued by council leaders Nick Forbes, Martin Gannon, Glen Sanderson, Norma Redfearn, Iain Malcolm, Graeme Miller, and Simon Henig, plus North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll, and Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness.
A move to Tier 3 would mean that pubs and bars will have to close down unless they are serving “substantial meals”.
Residents in areas under the highest alert category are also banned from meeting up with people from other households in private gardens and told not to make overnight stays in other parts of the UK.
Those measures are on top of current Tier 2 restrictions in the North East banning households from mixing in any indoor setting.
Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes warned he was “very concerned” that the region’s Covid numbers were not dropping quickly enough and that it was “important to keep all options on the table”.
The government was not part of the talks and a meeting between the seven North East councils and local government secretary Robert Jenrick about Tier 3, which was expected to be held last Monday, is still yet to be arranged.
The leaders’ statement on Thursday also warned people not to use Halloween “as an excuse to trick and treat or hold house parties which could have devastating consequences”, urging residents to “do their bit to help drive the infections down further and faster”.
Latest figures for the region showed a significant rise in case numbers in Gateshead and North Tyneside over the last week.
Here are the latest Covid infection rate numbers for the seven days to October 25: