When this week’s news cycle began nobody knew that a political storm would break over North Tyneside.
In my last post, written on Friday, I explained that a new Coronavirus ‘variant of concern’ had been identified here in North Tyneside. At that point we had already arranged for local surge testing to be deployed, in order to better establish the extent of communtity transmission. What we didn’t know then, and neither did the leaders of councils in Bolton, Blackburn, Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester or Hounslow, was that the Government were about to update their official website with new guidance for people living in, working in, or travelling to those places.
It was only when an eagle-eyed journalist spotted yesterday that a Government webpage had been updated that the full implications of this stealthily-released guidance began to dawn. Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary quickly raised the issue with the Government via an urgent question on the floor of the House of Commons. The failure of Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi (standing in for Health Secretary Matt Hancock) to give a satisfactory answer only added fuel to the fire.
One of the things that local people expect of their elected councillors, and of their council officials, is that we are able to provide them with clarity on matters that concern them. Health, travel, business, leisure activities… all the things that affect people’s lives on a daily basis. If anything is going to interupt life functioning as normal, we need to know about it, in order to fulfil our duties and obligations to you, the public. I can entirely emphathise with the frustration, and the anger, of our Mayor and our Director of Public Health. Along with their counterparts in those other councils they were left entirely in the dark by an utterly incompetent Government, left wondering whether we had been subjected to a new lockdown, or not.
Thankfully this afternoon the penny finally dropped in Westminster and an online meeting was hastily organised between the Government and leaders from the councils concerned. Many of the most urgent questions were addressed, not least a clearing up of central issue – “Are we in a new lockdown or not?” Thankfully, that was answered in the negative. The Government guidance on this occasion is merely advisory, not legally enforceable.
Life goes on then. And as I said on Friday, we do need to be cautious for the next few weeks, as we still have tens of thousands of local residents who are not yet vaccinated. Coronavirus still presents a very real health threat to them. Indeed, even those of us who have received a vaccine are not completely immune, we just have a reduced chance of catching it. So, please do your bit and visit one of the surge testing sites, it will help us get a better handle on things.
If you’re interested to know how North Tyneside compares to other areas in terms of the covid infection rate you can explore the data on this interactive map.