Cabinet minister tells Lancashire that some lockdown-lifting variation is "understandable" - but not too much

Significant local variations in when lockdown restrictions are lifted risks causing confusion amongst the public, according to a cabinet minister.

Thursday, 4th June 2020, 8:14 pm

Transport secretary Grant Shapps was responding to a question from the Local Democracy Reporting Service at the daily Downing Street briefing about whether council public health bosses should be empowered to make their own local decisions on when the measures should be modified.

However, he said he understood that some areas may decide that they feel the need to “delay for a week” if local circumstances demand it.

Last week, Lancashire’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, advised schools in the county council area that he did not feel it was yet safe for them to reopen, because of the risk that it would not be possible to contain any outbreaks of coronavirus which might occur as a result. He is due to review that guidance every week as of next Monday.

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Grant Shapps took questions from Lancashire at the daily Downing Street briefing (image: BBC)

That announcement came on the day that the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that directors of public health would have a “crucial role” to play in deciding whether to impose local lockdowns in future – but did not suggest a more localised response to the lifting of restrictions in the first place.

Speaking at No.10 on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Shapps said that there was a balance to be struck between local discretion and national uniformity - and revealed that he had looked into the Lancashire schools situation specifically.

“There is clearly a decision that needs to be kept in mind [about] the extent to which you say things are for local decisions and the extent to which you have a clear national message that says this is the date when X or Y is going to happen.

“When I talk to the scientists, [to understand] is it the case that in one location schools aren’t ready to go back, but in another location they are – the difficulty is having sufficient test data to [determine] in one particular location whether that’s a justifiable decision or not.

“In the end, you do have to…make those decisions on a national level. It is, of course, also true and perfectly proper that people may [think they have] got a particular issue [in their locality] and [decide to] delay by a week – which I think is perfectly understandable.

“But I think on balance, you’ve got to have a national message – otherwise people will be confused [if, say] non-essential shops [were reopening] in one town and not another in the short term.”

The government has said that those non-essential retailers which have not yet reopened can do so on 15th June, if conditions allow. Some sectors of the hospitality industry could be permitted to resume trading from 4th July, at the earliest, provided they are deemed safe and are enforcing social distancing.

Dr. Karunanithi welcomed what he saw as endorsement of at least some degree of local flexibility over such dates from Mr. Shapps.

“It’s good that there is national recognition for why things might be different locally and I appreciate support from the minister to do the right thing for local residents.

“It’s very likely we’ll need to be reacting to local outbreaks without another national lockdown. I’d rather not leave it until we need a lockdown locally either, I’d rather a graduated response plan – with enforcement as a last resort,” Dr. Karunanithi added.

He also welcomed the transport secretary’s announcement that face coverings will become a requirement for all public transport users from 15th June.