'We could be next' warns Preston MP as travel 'advice' is issued in Covid hotspots
Preston MP Sir Mark Hendrick is refusing to rule out a Covid lockdown across Lancashire now the North West has emerged as the epicentre of the Indian variant.
Five of England’s top 10 infection hotspots are in the county, with neighbouring Bolton, just over the border in Greater Manchester, the worst in the whole country.
And with many people moving freely around the region for work reasons, the MP believes it could only be a matter of time before Government travel advice to restrict non-essential journeys might be considered in districts like Preston, South Ribble and Chorley.
Eight areas - including Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley and Bolton - were reported to have been placed in “mini-lockdowns” at the weekend to try and halt the spread of the highly infectious B.1.617.2 (Indian) strain of coronavirus.
Last night there was confusion over what the Government actually meant with its travel advice message on its official website on Friday, with public health bosses in all eight of the hotspots issuing a joint statement insisting there would be no travel restrictions in or out of their areas.
“Following the national coverage of recently revised guidance we have met with national officials and confirmed there are no restrictions on travel in or out of each of our areas: There are no local lockdowns,” said the statement.
“In areas where the new Covid variant is spreading we are all working together to boost testing and vaccination and to support self-isolation.
“There are sensible public health precautions people can take as individuals in line with the sorts of advice we have all been following throughout the pandemic.
“We will keep sharing that and working with national officials to make sure people understand what they need to think about as they go about their daily lives.”
In the Government’s original message, people in the eight high risk districts had been urged not to travel outside their area unless their journeys were unavoidable - for example for work, for school or to attend medical appointments. They were also asked to work from home if possible and not mix with others indoors.
Council leaders and public health officials in all eight districts were taken by surprise, claiming the Government had not consulted them, nor given them any prior warning. The move was described as “lockdown by stealth,” especially by officials in those areas affected.
Professor Dominic Harrison, Joint Director of Public Health for Blackburn with Darwen, said: “Local government areas involved were not consulted with, warned of, notified about, or alerted to this guidance.”
And Prof Harrison, who holds an honorary academic post with the University of Central Lancashire added: “I have asked to see the national risk assessment which supports this action - it has not been provided yet.”
Sir Mark, whose Preston constituency has seen a significant increase in cases over the seven days up to May 20, said he felt it could only be a matter of time before travel in parts of Lancashire might be affected.
“I’m sure it will affect Preston and other areas because there are lots of people who are in the same travel to work area with many living in Blackburn, Burnley and Bolton and working in Preston and vice versa,” he said.
“(Boris) Johnson has made it plain from some time back that the last lockdown was the final lockdown, because the vaccination programme is making good progress and reducing the occurrence of the disease.
“But it’s one thing to say we are not going to do that again and another when the data says otherwise.
“I don’t think he would be successful because it is not enforceable. While some people will take the advice, a significant number of others won’t. And I just think it would probably make it worse.
“But I wouldn’t rule out another proper lockdown to be honest. If we don’t get a grip of this new variant we will be back where we were.”
Eight of Lancashire’s 14 districts, which include unitary authorities Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen, saw a rise in the number of confirmed cases last week compared to the previous seven days. One, South Ribble, stayed the same and five more showed a drop.
Far and away the largest rise in new positive tests came in Blackburn with Darwen where the number rose from 171 to 420, the equivalent of 280.6 per 100,000 population. That figure was second only in England to Bolton where a staggering 1,296 new cases were recorded, representing 450.7 in 100,000 people.
Across all 14 boroughs there were 920 positive results in the seven days up to May 20, up from 577 the week before.
Sir Mark added he didn’t believe Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted to introduce a full lockdown so soon after insisting his roadmap to unlocking was “irreversible.”
He said: “Because of his libertarian instincts, and because his backbenchers are pushing him not to introduce one, he doesn’t want another lockdown. That is why these (latest travel measures) were guidelines rather than a properly enforced lockdown.”