Coronavirus in Norfolk: What will the restrictions be when lockdown ends?
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Parts of Norfolk could emerge from the national lockdown into different tiers, it has been suggested, as coronavirus rates show considerable divergence in the rates of coronavirus cases across the county.
Coronavirus cases in one part of Wymondham over the past seven days have sent it among the country’s top 200 areas in terms of infection rates, while areas such as Sheringham, Swaffham, Stalham and Sea Palling have had two cases or fewer.
And council leaders, meeting on Thursday, will discuss how that sort of disparity, if still the case when lockdown ends, might affect restrictions in Norfolk.
Government advisors have questioned whether it will be appropriate for a return to the same tiers which existed before lockdown, with Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, suggesting tier one, which Norfolk had been in prior to lockdown, has “little effect”.
And there has been a call for the public to be braced for the possibility some parts of the county could need to have differing restrictions.
The contrast is laid bare by Public Health England figures which show, in the seven days up to November 11, 41 cases in Wymondham West meant it had a rate of 722.7 cases per 100,000 people - the 166th highest in England.
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Wymondham East and Spooner Row had 76 cases, giving a rate of 652.2 cases per 100,000 people and placing it 273rd of all English areas.
Yet Swaffham, Sheringham, Stalham and Sea Palling had two cases or fewer - and that has prompted questions over whether a one-size fits all approach would be appropriate.
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John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, which includes Wymondham in its boundaries, said: “Norfolk went into this together and if we can come out in tier one together, we would all be delighted.
“But we now have to seriously contemplate, as a matter of urgency, the issue that we will have to deal with hotspots and consider what that means for tiers in Norfolk - and whether that means we will not be in the same tier together.
“We need to have a conversation with the public about that possibility, because without the public understanding, we will never get the consent and compliance it would need.”
Sam Chapman-Allen, leader of Breckland Council, said it was a possibility which needed to be considered. He said: “Is it right for many of the areas which have low rates to be impacted by those areas where numbers are higher? I don’t know the right or the wrong answer, but it’s a fair question which we need to be asking.”
Tier one, rated medium, meant different households could mix both indoors and outdoors, but only in groups of up to six people; pubs and restaurants could open until 10pm, but had to provide table service; there were no restrictions on travel; shops and gyms stayed open and organised sport was allowed.
Tier two restricted mixing indoors, limited journeys and prevented care home visits,
Before the lockdown, the trigger point for moving into tier two was generally around 100 cases per 100,000 people, although other factors such as hospital admissions and specific, localised outbreaks, played a part. Norfolk’s overall infection rate is now closer to 150 cases per 100,000 people.
Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council, said it was too soon to know what the future would hold which made it more crucial than ever that people stick to the rules.
He said: “We want to make sure Norfolk does not have any more restrictions than necessary, given the balance between lives and livelihoods.
“If people have got symptoms, they must get a test. And if people are told to isolate, then they need to isolate.
“People need to keep washing their hands, wear face coverings and keep social distancing. In these last couple of weeks that’s more important than it’s ever been.”
But an expert in infectious disease at the University of East Anglia (UEA), said he thought Norfolk would be moved into tier two when the national lockdown ends on December 2.
Prof Paul Hunter, from the UEA’s School of Medicine, said: “I suspect almost everywhere will be moved to tier two, while a lot of the places which were in tier two will move into tier three.”
He said he believed the tier system had been working, which he said was reflected in a slowing of cases, but the “last hurrah” of people going out just before it came in had caused rates to rise.
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick has said ministers want to see a “significant easing” of coronavirus controls when the lockdown in England is lifted on December 2.
Mr Jenrick said that it was too early to say which tiers particular areas would be moved into when the country returns to a system of tiered controls.
Duncan Baker, North Norfolk MP, said he was “optimistic” that the county would emerge into the lowest level of restrictions.
He said: “North Norfolk, in particular, still has some of the lowest infection rates in the country.
“I very much want us to be coming out into the lowest tier, in whatever shape that comes forward as, as soon as that’s practically possible, in public health terms.
“We had a briefing with hospital chief officers on Friday and there was a sense of optimisim that, although admissions continued to be reasonably high in Norfolk, we are in a reasonable situation at the moment.
“However, we are still not even halfway through the current lockdown and it will be monitored very closely.”
Mr Baker said recent announcements around vaccines show that there “is light at the end of the tunnel”.
George Freeman, Mid Norfolk MP, said: “Which tier will we be in after lockdown? It’s too soon to say. It will depend on how much we can get the R rate down in this circuit breaker.
“I would like us to be able to show that we can safely return to tier one. To do that, we will need to see the Norfolk data at the end of November.”