How the North East moved towards England’s lockdown 2.0

The North East joined the rest of England in going into the country’s second national lockdown this week.

Seven weeks after a first set of local restrictions were imposed in mid-September to curb the spread of Covid-19, our region has seen those measures evolve into a full shutdown.

Here is a look back at what has changed over the last couple of months and some of the key events chronicling how we got to this point.

Friday, September 18

This is the day that the North East first went into a form of local lockdown, after weeks of gradually rising coronavirus case numbers.

The restrictions banned residents in Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and County Durham from socialising with anyone outside of their own household or support bubble in private homes and gardens.

Hospitality venues were also given a 10pm curfew and restricted to table service only under the law.

Monday, September 21

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announces a U-turn on a crucial childcare issue within the North East’s restrictions, confirming that grandparents and other relatives or friends would no longer be prevented from looking after children while their parents are at work.

The move was hailed as a “victory for common sense” by local leaders who had been pushing for the exemption to be introduced.

Thursday, September 24

Liberal Democrats in Newcastle call for stricter lockdown measures as infection rates continue to spike. At this stage, South Tyneside had the second-highest infection rate in England but would soon be overtaken as the region’s Covid hotspot by Newcastle.

Monday, September 28

The North East’s lockdown measures are tightened. Mr Hancock tells the House of Commons that, from September 30, the ban on households mixing would be extended to any indoor setting – including pubs and restaurants.

The changes sparked anger among local councils, who say they were unaware an announcement was coming and complained that critical details were not provided.

Tuesday, September 29

A day later, confusion spreads over whether people would be allowed to mix in beer gardens – after both Boris Johnson and education minister Gillian Keegan fail to clarify the new rules.

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes said people had been left “confused, frustrated and deeply angry” by the lack of clarity over the tougher restrictions.

People wearing face masks outside Northumbria University
People wearing face masks outside Northumbria University

Friday, October 2

First details of a major Covid outbreak among Newcastle students are revealed, with 770 positive cases confirmed at Northumbria University and 94 at Newcastle University.

Sunday, October 4

It is reported that almost 16,000 Covid cases across the country were missed off official data and contact tracing was delayed because of a technical glitch.

The error affected 474 cases in Newcastle and meant that the city had an infection rate of 376 cases per 100,000 people, not 235, in the seven days to October 2.

Tuesday, October 6

The leaders of Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds write to the Government warning that local lockdowns are not working, are “confusing for the public”, and some measures are “counter-productive”.

Thursday, October 8

After both Newcastle universities move most teaching online, another 1,600 more student Covid cases in the city are confirmed.

And amid reports that the Government plans to shut hospitality venues across parts of the North, fears are raised that the move could lead to a rise in “underground” house parties.

Monday, October 12

Boris Johnson announces a standardised three-tier Covid alert system, with the seven North East council areas placed into the ‘High’ Tier 2 level – avoiding the strictest measures.

The change in rules means that residents are now able to visit friends and relatives in their gardens, which had not been previously allowed.

Tuesday, October 13

A Downing Street spokesman confirms that the PM wants the North East to agree to tougher local lockdown restrictions, moving into the ‘Very High’ Tier 3, that would mean pubs and bars closing and people asked to avoid travelling out of or into the region.

Friday, October 16

There is relief as the North East is given a week-long reprieve by the Government to prove that its Tier 2 rules are successfully tackling the virus, before a potential shift to Tier 3.

The region’s leaders had earlier issued a defiant statement that there was “evidence of a flattening of the curve” and “we can make alert level 2 work.”

Wednesday, October 21

After Greater Manchester is placed into Tier 3 following a bitter feud between the Government and mayor Andy Burnham, North East leaders again urge the Government not to do the same here.

They claim to be “seeing early indications of a levelling off in cases”, while data shows a massive fall in the number of new cases among Newcastle students.

Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham
Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham
(Image: PA)

Friday, October 23

Fears spread that the North East will indeed go into Tier 3 after council leaders are sent a late night email from the Government warning there “may shortly be a need” to impose stricter controls. Talks are expected to be held a few days later with local government secretary Robert Jenrick, but are never arranged.

Northumberland’s council leader urges for the county to be treated as a “special case” and excluded from any tougher measures because of its lower rate of transmission.

Monday, October 26

The region’s political leaders issue a statement saying that they will “resist any attempt” to impose Tier 3 lockdown measures on the region and claiming the Government has now accepted that existing restrictions have had success in curtailing the spread of the virus.

Thursday, October 29

Just three days later, the mood among local leaders shifts. Following crunch talks, council bosses now say they have serious concerns over Covid-19 cases being “too high” despite levelling off and the prospect of local hospitals being overwhelmed.

Rather than opposing a move to Tier 3, they now say they will talk to the Government about “what more needs to happen for infection rates to continue slowing” and that “all options remain on the table”.

Friday, October 30

News is leaked to the national press on a Friday night that Boris Johnson is set to announce a nationwide lockdown. This effectively ends speculation over if and when the North East is going to be placed into Tier 3.

Saturday, October 31

The Prime Minister confirms that a new four-week lockdown will be in place in England from November 5 to December 2 and tells people to stay at home, while also confirming that the furlough scheme would be extended.

The lockdown will see non-essential shops close, as well as pubs and restaurants, though schools and universities will remain open.

During a repeatedly-delayed news conference, chief medical officer Chris Whitty identifies the North East as the only part of the country where the number of new Covid cases has shown signs of flattening.

Monday, November 2

North East leaders say the region is “in a better position than most” to take advantage of the four-week lockdown because Covid rates here were already falling.

Newcastle public health director Eugene Milne says he hopes the four-week shutdown can cut infection rates here by half and mean the North East can be placed into more relaxed Tier 1 rules come December.

Thursday, November 5

Lockdown begins and the North East’s streets fall eerily silent.

After crowds of revellers packed the streets on Wednesday for some last-minute shopping or a final drink in the pub, shutters come down and closed signs go up.

Chronicle Live – Sunderland