The government launched its new local alert level system on Monday, in the latest attempt to bring England’s Covid 19 crisis under control. But this immediately created confusion across whole swathes of the country. And raised a wide range of questions about the reasoning behind it.
Liverpool was the only area placed on ‘very high alert’
The first surprise was that only one area, Liverpool City Region, had been placed in Tier 3 (very high alert), without a clear indication of what the rationale was. Other cities in England, including Nottingham, currently have higher Coronavirus case numbers. And the region was only one of many in the North and Midlands previously placed under local restrictions.
The decision could be driven by its hospital admission figures (currently the third highest in Europe). These look particularly concerning at Liverpool University Hospitals Trust - where intensive care beds are now at 95% occupancy.
Liverpool’s Mayor, Joe Anderson, accused the government of railroading decisions through, without full consultation. And many here feel Tier 3 Covid 19 measures are not even appropriate in addressing the problem. Local residents have particularly highlighted increased case numbers in student areas as an issue. And it’s true that Liverpool, like other university cities, has been heavily impacted by its higher education settings reopening.
The business community is obviously concerned about the effect of Tier 3 status on the city’s economy. And it’s been described as a ‘killer blow’ for Liverpool’s hospitality and leisure industry. North West MPs have called for powers to close any unsafe businesses, rather than take such a broad brush approach. But at least one glimmer of hope has been offered by the launch of a locally sourced emergency fund.
Other areas in the North West have been placed in Tier 2
Neighbouring areas, in Lancashire and Greater Manchester, have been categorised as Tier 2 (high alert). This raised a few questions as case numbers remain on the rise here, and hospital figures are also increasing. In fact, the situation is so serious that the Nightingale has already been put on standby.
An article in Manchester Evening News suggested the lower alert level here was due to robust exchanges between local officials and the government. And also criticised the Prime Minister’s offer of increased support for test and trace, and local,business if an area agreed to even more restriction. There was certainly a hint of pitting local leaders against each other, within the lines of the PM’s announcement.
Across the Pennines, in the Sheffield City Region, confusion reigned following Johnson’s press conference. The city and surrounding areas were not mentioned at all in terms of high or very high categories. It eventually emerged, several hours later that the whole area was, in fact, in Tier 2.
Local MPs, including Louise Haigh, hit out at the government’s lack of consultation and poor communication.
The local alert ‘postcode checker’ wasn’t available
But the mixed messaging kept on coming, as the PM’s promised postcode checker (on the Gov.UK website) failed to appear. This left many having to make an educated guess about which tier their area had been placed in. And the fact that such a simple system could not be included straight away seems symptomatic of this government’s eleventh hour approach. (The site has since been updated).
People who then tried to access this information via the NHS Covid 19 app were further confused. The new local alert levels were listed differently here - as low, medium and high.
What is the criteria for deciding each alert level?
One of the most baffling aspects of the new system is the lack of clarity about government decision making. And many analysts and commentators have struggled to fully understand this.
Tiers appear to be based on cases, pressure on local NHS services and age groups affected. But there are a number of anomalies, including in Conservative held constituencies (Barrow, York and North East Derbyshire seem to be ‘stand outs’). And one issue flagged up by local leaders is the need for at least basic parameters on how any area can move between bands.
The hope is, over the coming days, it might all become a bit clearer. And perhaps the government will provide a methodology. But in the meantime this country, under the current administration, feels even more confused than ever.