The government is exempting staunchly Conservative regions of the country from localised lockdowns, according to leaked emails from a leading health expert to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
No. 10 is “under growing pressure” to explain the decision to place “large parts of the North and Midlands under local lockdowns while overlooking constituencies with similar infection rates” that are represented by Tories including Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, The Sunday Times reports.
Johnson told MPs on Friday that “I appreciate… people want to see an iron consistency applied across the whole country”. But the current restrictions have prompted a director of public health to accuse the prime minister of handing an “economic ‘double whammy’ to more challenged areas”, the emails reveal.
What do the emails say?
Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen in Lancashire, wrote to DHSC officials last Thursday to warn that local lockdown measures were “avoidably increasing economic inequality”, The Sunday Times reports.
“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,” Harrison wrote.
This ”has the effect of exacerbating the economic inequality impacts of the virus in those areas”, Harrison said, adding: “We urgently need consistency in the national strategy if the control system itself is not to add to inequality.”
Opposition politicians have also pointed to disparities in the implementation of lockdowns. Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth yesterday told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that a lack of clear guidelines over local lockdowns means “there is a suspicion that there is political interference – I hope there isn’t”.
But “until the government publish clear guidelines, that suspicion will always linger”, Ashworth said.
Which areas have been locked down?
When officials first imposed regional lockdowns back in late June, they “intervened in wards where the weekly rate exceeded 60 new cases per 100,000”, The Sunday Times notes. However, public health director Harrison says that this benchmark has not been used in some wealthier, Conservative-voting areas of the country.
Richmondshire in North Yorkshire, which includes Chancellor Sunak’s Richmond constituency, last week had 73 new cases for every 100,000 people, while fellow cabinet member Jenrick’s constituency of Newark and Sherwood is currently at 84. Yet neither area has been subjected to new lockdown measures.
Meanwhile, Greater Manchester, which is home to a number of Labour seats, had an average infection rate of around 24 per 100,000 when lockdown was introduced there in early August.
A number of constituencies in former so-called “red wall” areas that switched from Labour to Tory in the December election have also escaped new measures despite having high case numbers. These constituencies include Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, which is currently recording a rate of 112 new cases per 100,000 people.
A spokesperson from the DHSC told The Independent that the new cases rate was “only one of a set of considerations regarding when it is appropriate to impose and release restrictions”.
“Decisions are made in close consultation with local leaders and public health experts, informed by the latest evidence from the JBC (Joint Biosecurity Centre) and NHS Test and Trace, PHE and the Chief Medical Officer for England,” the spokesperson said.
“While we recognise how much of an imposition these measures are, they are based on the latest scientific evidence in order to suppress the virus and protect us all while doing everything possible to support the economy.”