Lancs lockdown: crunch meeting ends with question mark over which areas should get toughest restrictions
A third meeting in as many days between Lancashire's political leaders and government officials has ended with neither agreement on - nor a clear indication of - the likely lockdown restrictions to be introduced in the county in the coming days.
Half a dozen council leaders held a virtual gathering with Downing Street representatives on Sunday afternoon to discuss a letter sent by all 15 local authorities in the region 24 hours earlier, telling the government that they would not support plans to close down the county’s pubs and restaurants as part of attempts to control the spread of coronavirus.
Ministers have instead been urged to make it illegal for households or support bubbles to mix in all indoor and outdoor locations in Lancashire - something which is currently strongly advised, but is only legally enforceable in homes and gardens.
The leaders' request also called for measures designed to "alter the public’s behaviour in relation to social mixing", a "fully-functioning" track and trace system and the provision of multi-million pound support packages for the care and education sectors, businesses and individuals hit by increased infection rates and any tighter lockdown.
The flurry of meetings in recent days came as the Prime Minister prepares to announce a new three-tier system of Covid restrictions in the Commons on Monday.
However, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that all parties were left in limbo following the third round of discussions, with ministers making their own demand for Lancashire's leaders to say which areas they want to see enter the most restrictive "tier 3" of lockdown measures - for which some as-yet-unnamed parts of the county have seemingly been earmarked by the government.
But the county's leaders were not provided with exact definitions of what each of the separate tiers entails.
The LDRS understands that there is a strong appetite locally for additional restrictions to be introduced across the county, in order to create a consistent message for residents - but that unanimity could depend on whether any new measures are the kind that Lancashire seeks.
It is less clear if consensus would survive if the outcome involved all of the county being placed into tier 3, if there had been an option for some areas to go into tier 2.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Lancashire's requests for restrictions seem to straddle tiers 2 and 3. Based on the reported content of each category - according to leaked definitions obtained by The Guardian last week - the county's desire to make household mixing illegal is expected to be a tier 3 measure, but its wish to keep hospitality venues open would place it in tier 2.
It is understood that government officials were resolute about the closure of Lancashire's pubs and bars during Sunday afternoon's discussion.
All 15 Lancashire council leaders met for further discussions of their own early on Sunday evening and are seeking clarity from the government over the tier definitions - but time is running out for them to influence Monday's expected announcement by the Prime Minister.
A statement on behalf of the leaders of all 15 Lancashire said that they "share the same objectives with central government– to protect our residents, to protect our economy and to protect our NHS".
It adds: "But we do need more detail from government about their proposals and in particular what the differences will be between the tiers in the planned new system.
"Any additional measures that are brought in must also go hand-in-hand with additional support for those affected. The government's extension to the furlough scheme is a welcome step but any further restrictions on Lancashire's economy will require more support to protect jobs and businesses. We also welcome any move to give local areas more influence and powers with respect to test and trace. We're on the ground and we know our communities best. But that also will require significant investment in local areas so that the job can be done well.
"In our discussions with central government we have set out clearly what our views are on how coronavirus can be contained in Lancashire. We look forward to continuing those talks - which must be meaningful, genuine and constructive - ahead of any final decisions about the new tier system.
"Alongside our NHS, police and other public services, local government has been on the frontline of the response to the pandemic providing vital services and support to those who need it most. We will continue to do this, and continue to make the case for Lancashire to government."