Unnecessary or essential? Debate continues over Northumberland's inclusion in North East lockdown-restrictions

The backlash in Northumberland against the new Covid-19 restrictions continues, with more councillors questioning the county’s inclusion.

By Ben O'Connell
Friday, 18th September 2020, 2:40 pm
Updated Friday, 18th September 2020, 8:14 pm
There is mixed reaction over Northumberland's inclusion in North East restrictions
There is mixed reaction over Northumberland's inclusion in North East restrictions

When the new measures covering Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham (the LA7) were announced on September 17, the independent county councillor for Berwick East, Cllr Georgina Hill, and the chairman of the town’s chamber of trade, Stephen Scott, both questioned why north Northumberland was ‘being lumped in’ with the rest of the North East.

And today, on Friday September 18, with the restrictions – including a ban on households mixing and hospitality venues closing by 10pm – now in force, three Conservative councillors in the Morpeth area have also raised concerns about the impact on Northumberland.

The new leader of the Tory group and acting council leader, Cllr Glen Sanderson, set out the rationale yesterday, explaining that ‘we are committed to taking preventative action alongside our partners, to head a worse-case scenario off at the pass’.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“With 84 positive cases confirmed in the county in the last seven days alone, doing nothing is simply not an option – we need to do something now to avoid a local lockdown,” he added.

“In Northumberland, although infection rates are generally lower than in some parts of the North East, they have risen significantly in some areas, with increased numbers of outbreaks, leading to more community transmission.

“In our county, people also travel frequently between different areas for work and leisure, so this has to be a county-wide approach.”

Alnwick’s county councillor, Cllr Gordon Castle, has backed this approach, saying: “We must take at least a county-wide approach given the extent of travel between communities and towns and it was the right decision to join with the LA7 to act as one – the virus does not recognise geographic boundaries.”

He added: “Infection rates are rising nationally and Alnwick cannot expect to stay exempt.”

However, Cllr David Towns, the ward member for Pegswood, said: “Northumberland was not on the Government watch-list and so officers at our own council voluntarily asking the Government to impose these restrictions has come out of the blue, causing a lot of confusion and distress.

“While I have no doubt the decision was made in good faith and with the best of intentions, it was not discussed with councillors and we were not given any opportunity to hear or challenge the reasoning until after the decision was made.”

He added: “This is a fast-moving situation and I truly hope these restrictions prove worthwhile, because they are potentially enormously damaging to many people’s lives and livelihoods.”

Cllr David Bawn, the ward member for Morpeth North as well as a town councillor, added: “The new restrictions have come as a surprise and disappointment to many businesses following so closely on from the Government’s rule of six.

“While it is important for people to follow the new guidance, people need reassurance that a plan exists to monitor and release these new restrictions as soon as it is sensible to do so. A solution for the situation specific to Northumberland is required.”

He added: “It is important to remember that our local businesses still need our support and residents should continue to use them within the new rules.”

Another Morpeth town councillor, Cllr Rachael Hogg, said: “People are understandably frustrated by these new restrictions. If you look at the Facebook groups like Morpeth Matters, which tend to capture local feeling pretty accurately, you’ll see the restrictions are causing all sorts of issues.

“People are angry that childcare from extended family members such as grandparents was not given an exemption as this creates huge logistical problems for working families.

“People are approaching the existing restrictions very differently in places like Morpeth compared to inner-city Newcastle, Sunderland, Durham, etc. For the most part, people have been complying with the rules which is why we have fewer cases than nearby authorities.

“The blanket approach for the LA7 is completely unnecessary and inappropriate. Each local authority should assess the specific needs of that area individually and not just agree to what could be overly zealous measures just to be seen to be doing something.”

On the informal childcare issue, councillors and MPs had been lobbying the Government for this to be included as an exemption, although there were concerns that this is often by grandparents who are in the age range likely to be more at risk.

Following his announcement in the Commons, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “It is a challenge because of the problem of intergenerational transmission of the virus…so it’s an important balance that we need to strike.”

Late on September 17, Cllr Guy Renner-Thompson, Northumberland County Council’s cabinet member for children’s services, said: “The rules around informal childcare have not yet been confirmed. The advice is to carry on as normal until definitive guidance is issued. The schools have been told of this.”

‘The only people who should help you with childcare in your home are people you live with, people in your support bubble, or registered childcare providers including nannies.’

Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside were placed on Public Health England’s watch-list for increased coronavirus support last week.

Ahead of that, Northumberland’s director of public health, Liz Morgan, had warned that a number of the region’s authorities were set to join the list, although probably not Northumberland and Durham.

However, she added: “But if things continue, we may well be in the same position over the next few days or weeks.”

And at a family and children’s services committee meeting on September 17, public-health consultant Dr Jim Brown said: “The rate is increasing, less quickly than some other areas of Tyneside, but certainly increasing, with the majority in south-east Northumberland, although we are beginning to see them spread north and west.

“We are certainly at a crossroads. What’s really important is that we know for a fact we are only detecting a proportion of cases, that the average age is increasing, and with the testing difficulties, we also may be underestimating the number of cases.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers and consequently the advertising that we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news by buying a copy of our newspaper.

If you can, please do pick up a copy when you are at the shops. Thank you for your support.