COVID-19 tier divide: Confusion over new rules decision in England

Areas across the South of England have been moved into different tiers ahead of Christmas.

A total of 36 local authorities will either move up or down a tier from Saturday, but mostly up into Tier 3 as cases rise.

The decision comes after London and parts of Hertfordshire and Essex were placed under the top level of restrictions earlier this week.

People in Herefordshire will be under the least strict restrictions despite the COVID-19 situation being similar to places that have remained in Tier 2, such as Dorset.

Herefordshire‘s current infection rate is among the lowest in the country – but is still higher than other Tier 1 areas and similar to areas staying in Tier 2, like Dorset, or South Hams in Devon.

The other two areas where restrictions are being relaxed are Bristol and North Somerset, from Tier 3 to 2. Their current infection rates are half the Tier 3 average and similar to Tier 2 areas, but areas with similar COVID-19 situation have remained in Tier 3, including Derbyshire Dales and Tameside in Greater Manchester.

The number of cases in those three areas have not moved much from last week. Cases have gone down in just 52 local areas – three quarters are in Tier 3.

Herefordshire has also one of the lowest rates in the over 60s, something the government is looking at when deciding tiers. Bristol and North Somerset‘s over 60s rate is under the national average.

In all the improved areas, the positivity rate – the percentage of tests that are positive – is below 5%, while most of the areas which have gone up a tier are over 5%. The WHO recommends it is below that to have the pandemic under control.

The infection rate in the over 60s is above the national average in only 5 of the new areas that have gone to Tier 3.

Cases in all new areas moved to Tier 3 increased from the previous week, but there are differences in the infection rates. Areas like Luton and Peterborough are among the highest, but Gosport and North Hertfordshire are below the national average.

There was confusion among MPs after some areas moved tiers while others with similar numbers from the five criteria the government did not change.

Former minister Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the COVID Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Conservatives, said: “After a full and damaging national lockdown, millions more people and businesses across the country are heading into tougher restrictions.

“The government must urgently clarify what the criteria are for moving areas between, and especially down, the tiers.”

The government initially grouped entire counties together following a warning from SAGE – the government’s scientific advisors – about “edge effects” – people moving between areas and spreading the virus.

That included Kent, which despite being in Tier 3 since 2 December, has some of the worst numbers in England, prompting Mr Hancock to warn people in Kent to “behave as if they have the virus”.

But now, Mr Hancock has said: “We are prepared to move at a more localised level where the data and human geographies permit.”

This has caused anger among MPs and local leaders whose areas have remained in a higher tier as a county, while other areas have been split up.

Waverley is the only area in Surrey to avoid moving into Tier 3, while only Gosport, Havant and Portsmouth in Hampshire, and just Hastings and Rother in East Sussex will move into Tier 3.

The whole of Greater Manchester has remained in Tier 3, despite improvement in some districts.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers and a Greater Manchester MP, questioned what more the region could do to get out of Tier 3.

“The statement will be greeted with dismay in Greater Manchester where we have had severe restrictions for nine months – where in nine of the 10 boroughs rates are below the national average,” he said.

The government has said the newest tier system, which started on 2 December, is based on: infection rates in all ages, infection rates in over 60s, case rise or fall rate, positivity rate – percentage of positive tests – and NHS pressure.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has said any increase of more than 25% compared with the April peak is a cause for concern – only London is below that threshold.

However, Mr Hancock appeared to add to the criteria on Thursday, after he said: “While each metric is important in its own right, the interplay between each indicator for a given area is equally important, so a hard and fast numerical threshold on each metric is not appropriate.”

The law requires the government to review the tiers at least every 14 days, so the next review will be 30 December.

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