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Tiered lockdown on the cards for Lancashire if rates continue to rise

Local lockdowns are likely to make a return to Lancashire after the end of national restrictions if Covid remains a serious problem in the county.

England’s national lockdown is currently set to end on June 21, as outlined in February’s road-map out of Covid restrictions.

With that will be the return of indoor hospitality, nightclubs, large events, and weddings, subject to the results of a scientific Events Research Programme to test the outcome of certain pilot events throughout spring and summer.

But while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said time and time again that this will be the last national lockdown, it is understood that behind-the-scenes preparation for potential local restrictions are being planned.

One source at Public Health England (PHE) told LancsLive that plans are currently being drawn up similar to the old tiered system of local restrictions prior to the second national lockdown in November 2020 and over Christmas before the current third set of national restrictions.

Worries are also growing in regards to the Indian variant as well as massive differences on an area-by-area basis when it comes to cases and infection rates.

The current worst infection rate in Lancashire – and third worst in England – belongs to Blackburn with Darwen, rising to 99.5 new cases per 100,000 people in the week to May 8. This was an almost 100% increase on the previous week of testing data where a rate of 53.4 was recorded. The surge is believed to be linked to the presence of the Indian variant of Covid-19 which has been officially detected in three Blackburn wards.

Only five Lancashire areas have rates below the national average of 21.9, with the lowest being 7.9 in West Lancashire.

Last week, PHE labelled the Indian variant B.1.617.2 as a ‘variant of concern’ as it has mutations in their spike protein that could help the virus evade a person’s immune response.

It would also make it more transmissible.

There are three Indian variants that PHE are worried about; B.1.617.2, B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.3. India is currently on the UK’s ‘red list’ for travelling due to its devastating rise in Covid cases and deaths.

Last week, leaked PHE documents showed 48 clusters of the Indian variant in the UK, which in the North West includes the Rumworth, Deane and Great Lever areas of Bolton. These had links to the likes of care homes and schools.

In Lancashire, Leyland’s Runshaw College last week shut until May 17 after a Covid outbreak including cases of the Indian variant.

The Lancashire Resilience Forum declined to comment on the potential return of local restrictions in the county, referring LancsLive to central government.

Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 strategic response director at PHE, said: “We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely and have taken the decision to classify this as a variant of concern because the indications are that this VOC-21APR-02 [another name for the B.1.617.2 variant] is a more transmissible variant.”

A parliamentary source this week told LancsLive that a return to local restrictions was discussed “early doors” as to what may happen after the country’s third lockdown is lifted if Covid spikes once again.

They said that local restrictions were discussed as something that “could be used” after national measures end.

A government spokesperson told LancsLive that it “cannot rule out” new restrictions at a local – or even regional – level if cases or variants spread and potentially make current vaccine ineffective.

But they were keen to stress that there is no evidence of a need for this at this moment in time.

This is despite the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Safe) meeting today (May 13) to discuss a worrying rise of the Indian variant.

Scientists fear the rise of the variant could delay the lockdown road-map, with growing pressure to push back the end of lockdown date from June 21.

A member of Sage told the i newspaper “a delay is possible” to next month’s final step out of lockdown.

Thankfully for now, there is no sign that hospitalisations are starting to rise as a result of variant cases increasing.

Professor Paul Hunter, from the Norwich School of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “Fortunately as yet there is no sign that hospitalisations have started to increase in the UK.

“There has been a lot of debate about when and if a further wave of infection will happen in the UK. The reports of today suggest that this wave may have already begun. That hospitalisations have yet to increase would be consistent with the view that vaccine is still effective at reducing the risk of severe disease and gives hope that this new wave, if it indeed continues, will be less damaging to the NHS.”

A government spokesperson told LancsLive said: “We are easing restrictions across the country in a way that is cautious and guided by the data, to ensure that our progress is irreversible and there is no need for further national lockdowns.

“As set out in the roadmap, we cannot rule out re-imposing restrictions at a local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine. Currently there is no evidence to suggest re-imposing restrictions is necessary and we keep this under constant review.

“We are acutely aware of how difficult this pandemic has been for people across society, which is why we’ve provided an extra £12.9 million a month to local councils to support those who need it most.”

Public Health England did not respond before deadline.

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