Posted: 16.10.20 at 18:20 by Ethan Davies, Local Democracy Reporter
The most dramatic coronavirus development since the early summer easing of lockdown came to Cheshire this week, with both councils being placed in tier two restrictions by the government.
Tier two – also known as a ‘high alert level’ – means residents can no longer mix with other households in any indoor setting. Additionally, the rule of six applies for outdoor meet-ups.
Whilst the road to this point has been lengthy, leaders say the actual announcement process was very, very brief.
How were Cheshire’s leaders and MPs informed of tier 2?
MPs were given “about two hours” notice of the meeting, according to Conservative Eddisbury representative Edward Timpson.
He added in a statement to the LDRS that “nothing was confirmed in advance” about the content of the meeting.
However, Labour’s Weaver Vale MP Mike Amesbury said he received less than 20 minutes notice – something supported by Cheshire East and Cheshire West leaders Sam Corcoran and Louise Gittins.
Cllr Gittins went on to claim her invite “was a forwarded email for MPs at 12 o’clock to meet with [Health Minister] Helen Whately”.
She added: “We got ours at about 2.40pm, and it was a 3.10pm meeting. I was really quite angry, it was your worst nightmare.”
At the meeting, attendees were “shown statistics and graphs demonstrating rising infection rates across all age ranges, across all parts of Cheshire, and evidence of death rates and intensive care unit bed occupation by Covid-19 patients consequentially rising” – according to Edward Timpson.
He added that “a clear pattern of exponential increase was emerging”.
This presentation was then followed by an invitation for questions.
Labour’s CWAC leader told the LDRS that the meeting process left her “frustrated”. Cllr Gittins said: “By that time it was about 3.15pm, so we had 15 minutes to discuss what that meant, whether we were getting extra support, can we have control of contact tracing, do more local testing.
“[The answer was] ‘oh yeah we’ll talk to you about that’.
“I was so frustrated, so I said we have waited for some meaningful discussions with the government and it is disappointing to find out half an hour ago we were going to have a meeting of 20 minutes of a big group to discuss some really important issues impacting our communities.
“Helen Whately said we’d talk, but nothing has happened.”
What was the reaction to the news from Cheshire’s leaders and MPs?
Edward Timpson recognised the “need to protect both lives and livelihoods”, but added: “I don’t underestimate the impact on local businesses, which is why, after the briefing, I questioned the Prime Minister in the House of Commons about this, encouraging targeted financial support for Cheshire’s wedding industry and supply chain.
“These are difficult decisions, but with such stark figures in front of us, it’s clear Cheshire needs to do all it can to suppress the virus, and work towards reducing our infection rates sufficiently to transition to tier one as soon as possible.”
It is worth noting, on a council-level, there was some policy difference on restrictions. Whereas CEC were very unwilling to see extra restrictions put in place, CWAC actively sought them out, by sending a written request to the Department for Health some weeks ago.
Cllr Gittins supports the move with “a heavy heart”, believing it is a necessary step to ‘keep the rate of infections under control, protect the health of our communities and help take the pressure off our schools, NHS, care settings and key workers’.
On the day of the announcement, Cllr Corcoran said: “It is too early for us to give any further clarity over and above what we heard the Prime Minister say in the House of Commons this afternoon.”
One thing which has united the two leaders is anger over the way in which the move was handled.
Cllr Corcoran declined to discuss the meeting itself, but tweeted in response to Andy Burnham’s public declaration that “Greater Manchester will stand firm” and will “fight back for fairness and for the health of our people in the broadest sense”.
Cllr Corcoran’s statement read: “It is strangely reassuring to know that the lack of consultation before imposing tier two restrictions on Cheshire was the same as with Manchester.
“I now know that the government wasn’t singling Cheshire out, but was treating us all with the same level of contempt.”
Furthermore, Cllr Gittins commented: “There has been no discussion, or talking to us like equals.
“I just feel it’s a top-down, this is what you’re going to do, if you don’t like it you’ve got to get on with it anyhow.”
Much of this anger stems from the fact that a jointly-signed document asking for a £45 million support package for CEC, CWAC, and Warrington did not receive a response from the government, as was CEC’s own request on September 22 for more ‘enforcement powers’ to tackle non-compliant businesses.
When the issue is "life and death", as Weaver Vale’s Labour MP Mike Amesbury puts it, leaders and MPs "want the government to get things right".