Wealthy areas, including the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s parliamentary seat, are avoiding lockdown despite having higher Covid-19 rates than poorer areas that are subject to restrictions, according to leaked emails between health officials.
Gabriel Pogrund and Tom Calver www.thetimes.co.uk
The government is under growing pressure to explain why it has placed large parts of the north and Midlands under local lockdowns while overlooking areas with similar infection rates. Asked why the northwest is “treated differently” from areas such as his own seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London, Boris Johnson said on Friday: “I appreciate … people want to see an iron consistency applied across the whole country.”
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, decides which areas to place in lockdown during weekly “gold” meetings with advisers. Yesterday, 50 councils were subject to measures such as bans on household mixing. However, there is no official Covid-19 infection rate that triggers a local lockdown.
On Thursday, Professor Dominic Harrison, the director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen, the largest borough in the wider Lancashire area, wrote to Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) officials, saying the measures were “avoidably increasing economic inequality”. He said: “There is now a different level of central control applied across local authorities, with some of the more economically challenged boroughs being placed into more restrictive control measures at an earlier point in their … case rate trajectory.
“This has the effect of exacerbating the economic inequality impacts of the virus in those areas. We urgently need consistency in the national strategy if the control system itself is not to add to inequality, giving an economic ‘double whammy’ to more challenged areas.”
His comments come amid a row between ministers and mayors over lockdown policy. Andy Preston, the Middlesbrough mayor, last week said he did “not accept” the latest measures and said local leaders could effectively “preserve jobs and wellbeing”. He has since U-turned.
Blackburn with Darwen is one of Britain’s poorest boroughs. Its Covid rate peaked at 212 weekly cases per 100,000 people. When officials first imposed lockdowns in the area in August, they intervened in wards where the weekly rate exceeded 60 new cases per 100,000. A similar benchmark has been used elsewhere.
However, Harrison produced figures last week to suggest that wealthier areas with similar or higher rates were avoiding lockdown. Richmondshire in North Yorkshire, which includes Sunak’s constituency and is one of the least deprived areas in Britain, has 73 new cases for every 100,000 people. Newark and Sherwood, represented by Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, and Mark Spencer, the chief whip, stands at 84. Both areas have avoided lockdown.
In contrast, Wolverhampton, another poorer area, has 56 cases per 100,000 yet remains in lockdown. Chorley, at 72, Lancaster, at 66, and Oadby and Wigston, at 63, are also subject to lockdowns.
Several “red wall” seats that voted Tory at the last election have avoided lockdown, including Barrow-in-Furness (112) , Darlington (110) and Wakefield (73). Of all areas where infections exceed 70 but lockdown has been avoided, the majority are represented by Tory MPs.
Steve Reed, shadow housing secretary, said: “People living in the north and Midlands will be asking why they’re having to face restrictions when other parts of the country that have seen infections rise are not.” The DHSC said the incidence rate was only one criterion considered in deciding on lockdowns.
Sheffield 110 cases per 100,000
Newark and Sherwood 84
Chorley 73 cases per 100,000
Oadby and Wigston 63