This is why there is still no decision on Lancashire lockdown changes
A demand for £50m to support the Lancashire businesses that would be forced to close under tighter lockdown measures appears to lie at the heart of the latest delay in deciding whether the county should enter the toughest Tier 3 restrictions.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that government officials indicated that the cash was not currently on the table when they met with Lancashire council leaders this morning.
The virtual gathering came just half an hour before health secretary Matt Hancock addressed the Commons - and was widely expected to make an announcement on a change to the county’s Covid alert level.
A definitive decision had been expected after almost a week of discussions with sometimes frustrated local authority leaders.
Lancashire was placed in Tier 2 earlier this week, but the government is known to be keen for the county to become a Tier 3 area – which would result in the closure of its non-food pubs and bars and potentially a range of other non-essential services like gyms. Household mixing in all indoor and most outdoor areas would also be outlawed, except for support bubbles.
The timing of the meeting suggested that the government was set to make the county a take-it-or-leave-it offer before the health secretary took to his feet to announce a shift to Tier 3 – with or without local agreement. But ministers ultimately stepped back from the brink of imposing the measures.
However, referring to areas with the highest Covid rates, Mr. Hancock told MPs: “No further decisions have yet been made, but we need to make rapid progress.
“Delayed action means more deaths from Covid more non-Covid deaths and more economic pain later, because the virus comes down slower than it goes up - so we should stop it up going up in the first place.”
The LDRS understands that discussions between a trio of Lancashire council chief executives and the government were continuing this afternoon.
The £50m of business support being sought by the county is money left over from business grants issued to Lancashire’s councils during the national lockdown earlier this year. Conditions relating to how it could be used meant significant sums went unspent – and the Treasury is now poised to claw it back.
Lancashire instead wants to be given control over the cash so that it can fund discretionary payments to firms directly or indirectly affected by a tougher lockdown this winter.
The county has argued that promised government payments of up to £3,000 per month for businesses forced to close - and two thirds of pay for their employees - are insufficient. Leaders also want support to be made available to other companies hit by the fallout from the closure of some sectors of the economy.
Lancashire is seeking a further £5.2m per month during any Tier 3 lockdown for the care and education sectors and flat payments of £2m for enforcement of the regulations and £1m for a public information campaign and “behavioural insight” work into compliance with the restrictions.
However, the government has so far indicated that a total of £12m is on offer for the county if it moves into Tier 3 - to enhance local test and trace capacity and increase enforcement. There is also an offer of logistical support from the military.
The LDRS understands that there is a desire in some districts to remain in Tier 2– both because of concern that Tier 3 will have minimal additional impact on virus transmission, but also severely harm the economy.
That position is reflected by Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown, who said that there was an “inevitability” about a move to the top tier, but added: “As the package stands, it won't effectively reduce the spread - which is our main concern – [but will] cause further damage to communities in Lancashire already beaten up by a decade of austerity.
“There are also still too many unknowns, including whether they will allow us to run an effective test and trace service locally rather than the current outsourced shambles.
“We are being put in an unfair position by government and it all seems like a bit of a charade,” Cllr Brown added.
Sources have told the LDRS that the government is keen for the county to agree to Tier 3 rather than impose it – but South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster said it was now up to ministers to make a move, after a wasted week in which “nothing has really changed”.
“There is the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do – so just do the right thing.
“If the government thinks we should be in Tier 3, they should have put us there and then continued to have discussions about financial support for the businesses that would have to close.
“But how on earth did we get to the point where this has become a financial transaction? This is people’s lives and livelihoods we’re talking about,” said Cllr Foster, who added that he was in favour of a so-called “circuit-breaker” complete lockdown for a short period.
Wyre, Fylde and Blackpool currently have the lowest case rates in the county, but the LDRS can reveal that there is no appetite within government for them to be left in a lighter lockdown than other parts of Lancashire.
It is understood that Sir Edward Lister, the Prime Minister’s chief strategic adviser, said at this morning’s meeting with local leaders that a differential level of lockdown across the county could lead to an influx of people from Tier 3 to Tier 2 areas in search of pubs and bars that were still open.
It was suggested that such areas could see their Covid cases rise - just as Tier 3 restrictions brought numbers down elsewhere.
Wyre Council leader David Henderson said that the level of financial support on offer remained the main sticking point in talks with the government – and, for him, the swiftness of the proposed change.
“I’ve accepted Tier 2 and whilst the government are trying to push us into Tier 3, that can only be acceptable as long as the financial packages are there to safeguard the businesses that will have to close.
“But we haven’t given Tier 2 any chance yet – it only came in on Wednesday and then we’re told on Thursday to change it. They might as well have put us into Tier 3 straight away, but made sure that the financial packages were in place,” Cllr Henderson said.
The Covid case rates across Lancashire remain amongst the highest in the country - and while there are fewer districts in the top 10 worst-affected areas nationally than there have been in recent weeks, that is more as a result of rising rates elsewhere than falling figures in Lancashire.
However, the combined case rate for Lancashire as a whole currently stands at 305 per 100,000 people in the week to 13th October – some way below the 488 across the Liverpool City Region when that was put into Tier 3 lockdown earlier this week.
Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver told a meeting of the authority yesterday afternoon:
“We’re trying to get a package agreed whereby, whatever happens, we have the resources to respond so that we can help those businesses affected by any lockdown and their employees.
"We also need additional resources so that we can see the people of Lancashire through this Covid crisis which is getting more serious by the day.” County Cllr Driver said.
Meanwhile, a Lancashire MP told the LDRS that a government briefing with the county’s parliamentarians this morning was “a total farce”.
“It started late, the minister appeared unsure what was happening and local MPs were denied the opportunity ask questions,” the MP said.
Ribble Valley’s Conservative MP Nigel Evans said that the needs of hospitality businesses must be borne in mind whatever tier of restrictions Lancashire is in.
“I believe the plight of the hospitality industry whilst in Tier 2 needs to be carefully looked at, as these enhanced restrictions will reduce footfall and profits .
“If we move to Tier 3, there must be sufficient notice for the hospitality trade to look at stock and staffing and sufficient financial support to tide them over whilst the highest level remains in place,” Mr. Evans said.
A Government spokesperson said:“We work closely with local leaders, directors of public health and local government at all levels to help reduce the transmission of the virus, whilst minimising the impact to livelihoods and the economy.”
“Decisions are informed by the latest epidemiological evidence from the JBC, NHS Test and Trace, PHE and the Chief Medical Officer for England and the government is prepared to take immediate action to protect communities and save lives.”