As the lockdown in England ends, councils need reassurance that success in tackling infection rates will lead to a swift easing of local restrictions.
With the recent good news on not one but several COVID-19 vaccines, it is looking more likely that a way out of the pandemic and its related restrictions could be in place by the spring.
Christmas, too, is not entirely cancelled, with UK-wide agreement on relaxing social distancing rules for five days so that up to three households can get together to celebrate the festive season.
Of course, there is still a long way to go. The prevalence of the disease remains high and council areas in England are emerging from the latest lockdown into a new, tougher version of the three-tier local restrictions system.
The Prime Minister, in his statement on the Government’s COVID-19 Winter Plan, said strict measures will be needed now and into the new year to keep the virus in check, so we can all enjoy Christmas without triggering further waves of infections.
As first was going to press, English councils were finding out which tier they would be in. Almost all of England is now in tier 2, with more areas in tier 3.
Tier 2 means no socialising indoors with other households, while pubs and restaurants can open and serve alcohol but only if this is with ‘substantial’ meals. The ‘rule of six’ will continue to apply outdoors, but limited numbers of spectators will be allowed at sports events and live performances, and hairdressers and similar ‘personal care’ businesses will be open.
In tier 3, indoor entertainment and all forms of hospitality will close, except for delivery and takeaways, and there will be guidance against travelling in and out of such areas.
“Local health protection teams are picking up nearly all the contacts of cases assigned to them”
I know many of you are concerned about the economic and social impact of continuing and more stringent restrictions in your areas.
We have made it clear that councils need to know how they can move between levels (a government review is scheduled for 16 December), and reassurance that success in tackling infection rates will result in an easing of restrictions as quickly as possible.
The Government has said it will support new tier 3 areas with mass community testing and extra funding, including rapid or ‘lateral flow’ tests that give results in about 20 minutes, and support from the Army and NHS Test and Trace.
However, test and trace figures continue to show that local health protection teams are picking up nearly all the contacts of cases assigned to them (98.9 per cent in November), compared to 58.9 per cent of those managed online or by call centres. The LGA continues to call for councils to have greater local oversight and involvement with test and trace to help us get on top of this virus.
More broadly, this success demonstrates once again how local responses can be so much more effective than centralised ones, and the exceptional commitment of council staff on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19.
As we look to build back better from the devastating social and economic impact of this crisis, our communities will need our hard-working and dedicated staff more than ever before.
So please, take care of yourselves and your colleagues, and I wish you all a safe and peaceful Christmas.