Staying in Tier 3 is the “safest option” for the North East because of the upcoming five-day relaxation of Covid restrictions over Christmas, according to Newcastle’s public health director.
Prof Eugene Milne has backed the Government’s decision not to let any parts of the North East move out of the ‘Very High’ alert level of rules, despite virus infection rates having fallen in many areas.
Thursday morning’s news means that the region’s pubs, bars, and restaurants must remain closed and that people will still not be allowed back into football stadiums, cinemas, or theatres.
But Prof Milne says that staying in Tier 3 is an “appropriate precaution” ahead of families being allowed to mix again over the festive season, with up to three households allowed to form a ‘Christmas bubble’ between December 23 and 27.
The public health expert added that he does not expect the region’s tier status to change when the Government’s next review happens on December 30, as the extent to which the Christmas period causes the virus’ spread to escalate will not be known by then.
He said: “I think at the moment it is wise because of the Christmas break coming up and because locally our numbers, while they have fallen, are stable at the moment and we have seen some going up, particularly South Tyneside.
“From that point of view, I think it is an appropriate precaution as things stand.
“Were it not Christmas, we might feel differently – but at the moment I think it is the safest option.”
Prof Milne added: “I am speculating here, but I think they [the Government] will want to err on the side of caution until it is clear what the impact of the Christmas break has been. I would be surprised if a decision were taken on the 30th to change.”
In its rationale for keeping the North East in Tier 3, the Government said infection rates are “broadly decreasing in Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland” but are high and rising in South Tyneside.
But Prof Milne said that even if South Tyneside’s infection rates were more in line with the rest of the region, we would still be likely to stay in Tier 3.
Despite some calls for parts of the region to be given more lenience, the Government has always opted to keep Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and County Durham under the same level of restrictions since the first local lockdown measures in September.
Prof Milne added: “Even if we were stable across the whole of the LA7, my suspicion is that we would have still stayed in Tier 3. The rates are still higher than we want.
“Bear in mind that our rate at the moment is just above 150 per 100,000 per week, we would have considered that very high not so long ago.
“We would have needed to come lower than that and I feel more secure with the extension of Tier 3 at the moment.
“We want to drive those numbers down, get into Tier 2 and stay there. There is a real danger of yo-yoing between Tier 3 and 2 and that is not what anybody wants – it could be quite damaging.”
Prof Milne has urged people to take precautions when mixing with family members over Christmas and advised people to self-isolate before going into their Christmas bubbles.
He said: “The opening up of retail on the 2nd doesn’t seem to have had the impact we feared it might have, it has pushed numbers up a little bit, but they have settled at a pretty steady level.
“I’m hoping that if people do stick with the guidance over Christmas and they are careful about it….we have a chance of staying at a steady state through the holiday season and then can start pushing things down further in January.”