Newcastle’s public health chief says he “cannot predict” whether the North East has any chance of escaping Tier 3 before Christmas.
It was confirmed on Thursday that the entire region will be plunged into the strictest category of local Covid measures after lockdown ends on December 2 – meaning pubs, restaurants, and entertainment venues cannot reopen.
And while infection rates have been falling substantially here after an initial spike at the start of lockdown and a review of the new rules is due by December 16, MPs were reportedly told that Tier 3 is likely to stay in place here until January.
Prof Eugene Milne, Newcastle’s director of public health, said that it was hard to know how close the North East was to getting into Tier 2 even though “things are going in the right direction really rather well” – with no set of defined criteria for each tier published by the government.
He added: “I read the story that MPs had been told that things were unlikely to change before January. I have not heard anything about that directly.
“There will be a review for the 16th, but I cannot predict whether or not we will be at a level that will be considered Tier 2 at that stage.
“Prior to the lockdown, when we were at the plateau level that existed then, we were not able to bring the rates down.
“I would be keen that, when we do move into Tier 2, we have other mechanisms in place to help us stay at that level and drive things down further.
“The lower we manage to get the rates, the better our case becomes. But without knowing what the government’s thresholds are likely to be, it is hard to say whether we will be in that territory or not.”
Nick Forbes, the city’s Labour leader, has also called for ministers to publish clear criteria for placing areas into the various tier levels – after criticism that some Northern areas appeared to be unfairly targeted.
Parts of Northumberland, for example, will be forced into Tier 3 despite having an infection rate up to 15 times lower than areas in London, which is going into Tier 2.
Addressing the anger and confusion felt by many people, particular in rural and sparsely parts of the North East, Prof Milne said it was “important that we act together” and that even where Covid rates are low it only takes a small slip to cause a serious outbreak.
The health boss added: “It would be very helpful to know what the levels are that they [government] are looking for.
“They are clearly looking at the overall rate, the rate in over-60s, and the speed at which the rates are going up or down, the pressure on hospitals, and the proportion of tests proving positive.
“If you look at those, all of them are going quite well – with the exception of the number of positive tests, which is still around 11% for Newcastle and the North East. That is still quite a lot higher than Liverpool, which is down to 3 or 3.5%.”
Asked if the new Tier 3 measures, which are stricter than those seen under the previous tiered system of local measures would be successful in cutting infection rates, he said: “I am inclined to agree with the chief medical officer, who from the outset of the first tiering said that the base level of Tier 3 was not on its own going to be enough, and therefore this stricter regime is likely to have more impact.
“I think by going through the lockdown in advance and then moving into Tier 3, we put ourselves in a better position to control things.”