Major new Covid-19 restrictions being imposed across the North East are needed to avoid a “terrible” repeat of a full lockdown, public health officials say.
Local health chiefs have spoken out after it was confirmed that seven areas will be subject to new restrictions from Friday – Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham.
The changes include a ban on meeting people outside of your own household or support bubble in private homes and gardens, plus a 10pm curfew on pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues.
Prof Eugene Milne, Newcastle’s director of public health, said the restrictions were aimed at curtailing the virus’ resurgence before it is too late and ensuring “as much freedom, for the most people, for the most time possible”.
He told a meeting of Newcastle’s City Futures Board that there had been a “significant escalation” of Covid-19 cases across the region in the past two weeks and that infection rates are going up in older age groups as well as in younger people.
Prof Milne also sought to explain why all seven boroughs were being included in the new restriction zone, when only four are on the Government’s Covid-19 watchlist – Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland.
He said: “Although we are a city we also have very close relationships with our neighbours. We have commuting across boundaries, we have people who move between those different areas all of the time for personal reasons and for business.
“On that basis, it does not make sense for us to act independently on these things, it makes sense for us to act jointly.
“Over the weekend we had extensive discussions about what would be the most appropriate way forward and the strong feeling the directors of public health and chief executives have, and recommended to leaders of councils, is that we are in a position now that is better than at the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic.
“In that, we have the opportunity to take steps to try and curtail the rise of the virus and contain it before it gets into that terrible situation we had during the early part of the pandemic.
“We know not only from that experience but also from studies of past major epidemics that action of this kind is more effective in terms of shortening the time for which you have to take that action and also limiting the degree to which it has to be implemented.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that Sunderland now had a “concerning” Covid-19 rate of 103 new positive cases per 100,000 people each week, with the number above 70 in Newcastle, Gateshead and South Tyneside.
Prof Milne said that much of the virus’ spread has been caused by people leaving hospitality venues, staff moving to and from work there, in the groups of people congregating in house parties or outside takeaways.
Food and drink venues are now being limited to table service only, while takeaways will be forced to operate on a delivery-only basis after 10pm.
People are also advised not to socialise with people outside of their own households or bubbles in all public venues, to only use public transport when essential, and to go on holiday only within your own household or support bubble.
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Alice Wiseman, Gateshead’s top public health official, added that she had seen a five-fold increase in cases over the last few weeks and that the new restrictions “should be enough to make a real difference”, having looked at what has happened in other parts of the country that have been hit with similar measures.
Amanda Healey, Director of Public Health at Durham County Council, added: “This decision has not come about lightly but we must remain focused on protecting the health of all our residents.
“Our best hope of achieving this is to take a shared approach, to work with every community, resident and business in Tyneside, Wearside, Northumberland and County Durham to control any further outbreaks of the virus. This is at the heart of our decision making.
“Each local authority is seeing a rise in cases and all have infection rates higher than 20 per 100,000.
“For some, it is much higher and we know that if we do not take action now, even stricter measures will be needed and imposed upon us, whereas if we move fast and work together we stand a chance of reducing and shortening this phase of the pandemic.
“These new restrictions will help reduce transmissions in key settings, but only if we all follow them at all times in keeping with the ‘Hands, Face, Space’ Public Health guidance.”