Health chief in England's worst-hit Covid area calls for immediate lockdown

Josh Halliday North of England correspondent
·3-min read

The public health chief in England’s worst-hit coronavirus area has called for an immediate three-week “circuit breaker” across the country, calling Boris Johnson’s current approach “the worst of all possible outcomes”.

Prof Dominic Harrison, the director of public health at Blackburn with Darwen borough council, said it was “highly unlikely” that the strictest tier 3 restrictions would reduce the infection rate or protect the NHS.

“To put it bluntly, we’re going to need a much harsher set of control measures that look very much more like the first total lockdown, and very much more like what France is doing,” he told the Guardian.

“It doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the first lockdown but unless we do an awful lot more, it’s really not going to have the desired effect.”

Downing Street is facing mounting pressure to implement tougher or countrywide measures amid concerns the localised approach is failing. Almost 60% of England’s population will be under such restrictions by Monday, including nearly 11 million people north of Nottinghamshire living under the most severe lockdown restrictions.

Harrison’s area, Blackburn, has the highest infection rate in England – at 740 cases per 100,000 people it is nearly quadruple the country’s average, according to the latest NHS Digital data – despite having been under local restrictions for 13 weeks.

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The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said five weeks ago that the government should urgently consider a nationwide two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown – similar to that in spring, while keeping most schools open – but this was ignored.

Harrison said the north of England was now “likely to pay a disproportionate price for that scientific advice not being taken” and that there was no other option but to have a national lockdown for at least three weeks.

“Because the government decided not to do that on the 21st of September it will have to last longer to have the same effect because we would enter it with higher [infection] rates,” he said, adding that the UK should take note of the national measures announced in recent days in France and Germany.

“The idea of British exceptionalism, that we can fix it ourselves with some other kind of strategy, is going to be increasingly hard to defend,” he said.

Harrison suggested primary schools should continue to operate as normal but that secondary schools should operate on a two-week rota basis, except for pupils with special educational needs and the children of key workers who would remain in school full-time. The disruption, he said, would be less than the current situation of whole year group bubbles being sent home.

Harrison said the emerging consensus of many public health professionals and epidemiologists was that the strictest tier 3 measures – meaning the closure of pubs and bars that could not serve meals, as well as some other venues – were not “strong enough to turn around the high rates of transmission we’ve got in those tier 3 areas”.

Harrison said he believed a national lockdown would be announced or happen by default in about a fortnight, when the infection rate in London catches up to parts of the north-west, where tier 3 was implemented this month.

“By that time, of course, the north-west will have been in a tier-3 system that really was obviously not going to fix the problem,” he said. “And will have been further disadvantaged economically, socially. Everyone will be even more fed up and will be very conscious of the unfairness of it.”

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said on Friday that the idea of a “short, sharp circuit breaker” was “frankly an enigma”. He said the “overwhelming scientific advice” to the government was that local lockdowns were “the right way to go”.