As much of England was processing exactly what Monday’s government announcement on new coronavirus restrictions meant for them, leaders in one county were finishing plans to request tighter restrictions. Why?
Last Friday, MPs and council leaders in Essex were shown Covid-19 data for the county which, according to those present, warned of an exponential rise in cases for the weeks ahead.
Action was needed, they were told by Dr Mike Gogarty, director of public health and wellbeing at Essex County Council.
The number of cases in Essex has risen from just over 700 in the week to 2 October to just over 1,000 in the week to 9 October.
On Tuesday, the council formally asked the government to raise Essex’s status in the three-tier alert system from Medium (lowest tier) to High (middle tier), thereby asking for tighter social restrictions on its 1.4 million inhabitants.
It will mean households cannot visit each other in their homes. It is thought Essex is the only local authority in England to have requested tighter restrictions.
David Finch, leader at the Conservative-controlled council, said: “By acting now, we can hope to stem this increase, limiting the time that we are in these enhanced restrictions and – above all – avoiding further escalation into Very High.
“All of this will limit the damage to the economy. A healthy economy is critical to everyone having better lives in future.
“We already have one of the best track and trace operations in the country, but we will also be aiming to push its performance still higher alongside strengthening enforcement capacity and visibility.
“Making these painful decisions now will, we hope, bring dividends later.”
Dr Gogarty said: “Across the county we have moved from gradual to exponential growth with the number of cases rising exponentially.”
Essex is also home to two unitary authorities – Southend Council and Thurrock Council – that do not fall under the remit of Essex County Council.
Rob Gledhill, leader at Thurrock, has voiced dismay at the Essex move and warned it could have far-reaching implications.
“I cannot believe that Essex County Council would make this proposal without appearing to fully consider the evidence of the impact of further restrictions it potentially also imposes on the people of Thurrock,” he said.
“The simple facts are the government have announced we are in tier one (medium alert), we have a far lower number of infections than most Essex districts and councils in the country, fortunately we have very few of our residents in hospital and even more fortunately we have had no residents die of Covid-19 since the middle of July.”
Southend has not asked to be placed in a higher risk category at the current time.
Graham Bedford, landlord at The Bell Inn in Panfield, near Braintree, told BBC Essex a shift from Medium to High risk tier, which would prevent household mixing, could affect his business “big time”.
He said the recently-introduced 22:00 BST closing time restrictions, had already cost him thousands of pounds in takings.
“Where does it stop? It [being placed in a higher tier] would affect us even more. I don’t even want to think about it. I am taking every day as it comes.”
Gavin Callaghan, Labour leader at Basildon Council, said: “Nobody wants to put restrictions on any resident or business.
“When we met last week to listen to what the director of public health was telling us about the situation, my view is we are seeing the number [of infections] doubling as each week goes by.
“One of the key questions I asked the director was if we do not go up a gear in terms of restrictions, how long will it be until the intensive care beds in Essex hospitals reach the 70-80% capacity mark? The reply was just four or five weeks.
“With that in mind, my view is we should look to nip this in the bud quicker, and save more people’s lives.”
By Simon Dedman, BBC Essex political reporter
If this is granted by the government it would mean a ban on households mixing with another household indoors. It would put Essex on a par with the likes of Nottinghamshire and Greater Manchester where the infection rates are much higher than in Essex.
We understand that councillors, council leaders and MPs have been briefed over the weekend and it does have cross-party support.
There are concerns about the impact this will have on businesses, especially hospitality, and also how the restrictions could affect people’s mental health.
The feeling though is that the sooner Essex goes into Tier Two, the faster Essex gets out. It would also mean, it is claimed, that the county might avoid a harder lockdown later in the year.
Although the request has been backed by the various council leaders in the county, not all have offered whole-hearted support.
The Tendring district, which includes Clacton, Harwich and Manningtree, has seen its rate of cases increase from 25.9 per 100,000 people (in the week to 2 October) to 80.5 per 100,000 (week to 9 October).
Neil Stock, Conservative leader at Tendring District Council, said: “I don’t think lockdowns work. We shut the entire country down back in March to protect the NHS.
“We built new hospitals which were not used and in the meantime we’ve been destroying people’s livelihoods, the suicide rate has gone up through the roof, we’ve got people not having cancer referrals, we heard last week that a million people have not had breast cancer screenings because of the lockdown.
“This is not a credible way of running the country and we’ve got to have a better way of dealing with Covid. It is out there and it is bad and you don’t want to get it, but we need a different approach to it.
“We’ve got to learn to live with it. We can’t keep shutting the country down. If we go into the higher tier what will happen when we come out of it? I think we’ll just go back into it again.
“Tendring has the highest number in the country at the moment. A few weeks ago it had the lowest. The number is going to go up and it is going to go down. We cannot simply keep locking down forever and forever.”
He said if Essex pursued going into Tier Two, he would “have to grudgingly accept it”.
Harlow’s Conservative MP Robert Halfon said the figures he had seen showed Essex was two or three weeks behind the north of England.
“I have been in meetings since Friday. I think the approach looking at all the statistics suggests unless we take action in the next two or three weeks we could be in a similar situation to the north. In order to avoid that it may be necessary to have further restrictions.
“I think the tier system is the right one.”
It is understood the government’s decision on Essex’s bid could be made as early as Thursday.