Parts of Essex are set to face tighter restrictions as their alert level moves from tier 1 to tier 2 from midnight on Friday.
It is thought that Essex County Council was the first local authority to have requested tighter restrictions, despite parts of the county still having far lower cases than other areas of England already under tougher lockdowns.
While overall cases may be low, leaders within the council said they were extremely concerned by statistics showing cases of coronavirus were “rapidly increasing all over Essex”.
The decision has been met with confusion and anger by some, who claim the council has acted prematurely.
But cases are low – why is Essex tightening restrictions?
The highest infection rate in Essex, according to the most recent figures, is 89.9 per 100,000 in Brentwood – far lower than in Manchester, which is also in tier 2 lockdown but has a rate of 583.2 per 100,000.
This disparity is driving much of the anger from residents opposed to tighter restrictions, accusing the council of being too heavy-handed in its approach.
But the week-on-week figures show a doubling (at the least) in infection rates across the county, and this is what is causing such concern for leaders in Essex – so much so that they took the unusual step of asking the government to impose harsher restrictions.
The county’s director of public health, Dr Mike Gogarty, said rates would continue to accelerate unless urgent action was taken including a move to “high” from the “medium” level of risk.
In a statement on the council website, a spokesperson said: “We believe that by moving to tier 2 sooner, the curve will turn more quickly and the peak will be lower. This will reduce the time Essex spends within this tier, as well as the chances of the county needing to move to ‘very high’.
“It has not been an easy decision to make this request, but we feel on balance that it is absolutely the correct one for Essex at this time.”
Does it apply to everyone in Essex?
The reaction to the rules hasn’t exactly been positive – not least because of the confusion surrounding the geography of the new restrictions. While the county council introduced the rules to “ALL Essex residents”, it turns out that isn’t quite true.
Thurrock and Southend, home to more than 350,000 people combined, are both run as separate unitary authorities and did not ask for tighter restrictions.
As of the announcement on Thursday both are exempt from the new rules and remain in tier 1, despite being surrounded on three sides by tier 2 restrictions.
As could possibly have been be predicted, this separation has caused some confusion – not to mention frustration – especially as rates are actually higher in Thurrock and Southend than some other parts of the county that are soon to be living under stricter measures.
What has Essex County Council said?
The council confirmed the move to tighter restrictions shortly after the government announced new rules in London and other areas of England, including York, Chesterfield and North East Derbyshire.
In a statement on the council’s website, leader David Finch said: “We think the government has decided correctly and been guided by the science. The fact is that the number of cases in Essex is rising exponentially.
“We understand that the move to the high Covid alert level may affect people’s lives and businesses and we understand the very strong feelings about this. However, we have a duty of care to the people of Essex, and we firmly believe that this is the best route to minimise disruptions, to save lives - not just for those with the virus, but for other patients as well - and to protect businesses.
“These are difficult times for individuals, businesses and communities, but I know that as a county we will come together to support and protect one another – as we have done previously - and that acting sooner rather than later to curb the spread of Covid-19 is the right thing to do.”