Please find below the answers to the most common questions I am receiving from people about the ongoing restrictions and how we can move out of them.
I know a lot of people are disappointed by the decision to place us in tier 3 in the first instance, and I will explain below why that decision has been made, but also what I have been doing to help us move back to tier 2. I also want to recognise the many emails I received from people who are concerned about a possible relaxation of the restrictions. There are lots of factors to weigh up in all these decisions. Covid and the restrictions are tough on many people, and businesses. Equally, we all want the NHS to be there for us when we need it, and for our family members too. We are weeks from the roll out of vaccines, starting with the most vulnerable. Huge efforts are underway to ensure we can all protect ourselves and our communities by receiving our vaccinations. It is incumbent on all of us to suppress the virus as much as we can in the meantime.
Why tier 3?
As you will see, numbers in Northumberland are falling, but remain stubbornly high, mostly in the west of the but we have had pockets of outbreaks further north as well.
Case numbers are one of 5 categories that the Government is using to assess which areas are in which tier. They are:
a. Case detection rates in all age groups;
b. Case detection rates in the over 60s;
c. The rate at which cases are rising or falling;
d. Positivity rate (the number of positive cases detected as a percentage of tests taken); and
e. Pressure on the NHS, including current and projected occupancy.
So, there may be two areas with very similar numbers of positive cases, but the first area is experiencing a rise in cases, with hospital capacity stretched, and the second area is experiencing a fall in cases. In that case, the second area might be in tier 2, even though the first area has similar case levels.
The Health Secretary has published a document outlining the reasons for each tier decision, which I have attached to this web page below.
Why are we being "lumped in" with the rest of the "LA7" region?
Initially, when cases in Northumberland began to rise steeply, Northumberland County Council asked to be included in measures being taken for Newcastle, Sunderland, Tyneside and Gateshead because it was keen to work to limit infections. Now, I have received assurances from the Health Secretary that Northumberland will and is being considered separately from the rest of the region and the government is in theory prepared to place us in a different tier to the rest of the north east.
However, as you will see if you look at the data for each local authority area in the north east, our case levels are higher than other areas in the north east. We have higher rates than Newcastle, and Gateshead. We also need to be aware that we cannot remove ourselves from our neighbours. If our major hospital in Cramlington exceeds its critical care capacity, Northumberland patients will need to be transferred to beds in Newcastle (if available) and vice versa.
Why are some counties being split, but not Northumberland?
A few people have asked me why some counties in other regions are being split, and Northumberland is not. The Government is clear the smallest area it will consider is a local authority area. In many other counties, there are district councils, which run services such as public health, housing, planning and waste collection. In Northumberland, we have one large unitary authority, created in 2009 by the previous Labour Government. We can (and I did) argue the rights or wrongs of that decision, but the fact is our parish and town councils do not have public health teams capable of handling the enormous logistical and administrative work associated with pandemic infection control and the enormous Government grant funding schemes. That must be done by Northumberland County Council, so we have to be treated as one county.
What can we do to move down a tier?
We can all play our part by limiting our contact with others, and keeping a safe distance, maintaining good hand hygiene and wearing a face covering. This virus is transmitted more readily in indoor spaces, between people mixing together. The more we can do to limit that, the less chance it has of spreading.
We must also follow the NHS rules on self-isolating if requested to do so by the NHS app or test&trace. This is so important, even if you feel fine. 1 in 3 people with covid-19 experience no symptoms, but can pass it on to people why may suffer very badly from it. It requires us to be selfless and to our bit to keep everyone else safe, especially as we are now vaccinating the most vulnerable. If you are on a low income and need financial assistance to self-isolate, you can apply for that here.
I have been in discussions with the Council, who are establishing the work needed to implement community testing - the rapid testing of people without symptoms, which is how Liverpool was able to get a grip on infections. They hope to be in a position to move forward with this in January.
You can read the rules on mixing with other households at Christmas here. Please think carefully about if doing so is the right thing for your family. If you do decide to go ahead, please take as many steps as you can to limit the risk: lots of handwashing, ventilation where possible, sitting apart if possible, keeping visits short, and isolating for as many days as you can before and afterwards to limit the chance of spread.
If you develop coronavirus symptoms or are told to self-isolate, over the Christmas relaxation period, you must do so, and not meet others. If any member of your Christmas bubble develops symptoms you must all self-isolate as if you were one household.
This is a tough time for the hospitality industry, a point I am repeatedly making to colleagues. We must do all we can to follow the rules now, to get us down a tier, which will help that industry. There are no good options in this pandemic, but we are doing all we can to offer financial support to businesses who have had to close, or are open but suffering as a result of the restrictions.
You can find out more about the support available and how to apply here.
The Chancellor has announced the furlough scheme will be extended to the end of April 2021, so the government will continue to pay 80% towards wages of unworked hours - giving businesses and employees across the UK certainty into the New Year.
The covid vaccination programme is beginning to be rolled out in Northumberland. At present, the vaccine that has been approved by the regulator is a challenge to administer as it needs to be kept in very cold temperatures in more central locations. This means it is a challenge to administer, but the NHS is working round the clock to do so. Hopefully, the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine will also be approved in the coming weeks, which is far easier to store and transport, which will enable a huge "ramping up" of the vaccination programme.
I should say that this is not a cause to ease off following the rules. Once the most vulnerable have been vaccinated, the restrictions can start to be lifted. That point in time will be further away if cases start to rise, as the more NHs capacity is used up by covid patients (or by NHS staff being off with Covid or to isolate) the slower the vaccine roll-out will be. Please, please continue to do your part and follow the rules. The more we all do so, the faster we can all return to normal.
I will continue to push for Northumberland to be moved into tier 2 once our figures allow for that, but I will not hesitate to do all I can to ensure all my constituents will be able to access the NHS care they need. The more beds are occupied by covid patients, the more cancer treatments and hip operations are postponed, and the fewer NHS staff are available to vaccinate people. I would urge businesses affected to apply for the support streams available. We are taking advantage of the community testing being in tier 3 gives us access to, and I am hopefully we will all do our best to help our families and communities in keeping this virus suppressed so we can roll out a vaccination programme and get back to normality.
I will continue to work with local public health leaders to use all the new tools at our disposal to get our case rates even lower, and I will keep making the case to Government for Northumberland to be placed into a lower tier should we succeed in that plan.