Fears new Covid strain could lead to tougher restrictions in new year
- Credit: House of Commons/Archant
A new strain of Covid-19 could mean tougher restrictions are imposed in Suffolk and north Essex in the new year - unless people do "whatever it takes" to reduce infections, community leaders have warned.
Prime minister Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas for almost 18million people in London, south-eastern and eastern England yesterday, putting residents under new Tier 4 restrictions - and effectively into a two-week lockdown.
Suffolk and three districts in north Essex - Colchester, Tendring and Uttlesford - stayed in Tier 2 and avoided the new toughest restrictions, which see non-essential shops closing and people urged to stay home.
Families were also told to scrap their Christmas plans, with a maximum of three households now only allowed to come together on Christmas Day, as opposed to the five-day relaxation of the rules which was planned.
There are now fears the country could be plunged into another national lockdown in the coming weeks, after Mr Johnson refused to rule out the possibility.
Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, said with the new strain of coronavirus and the rising case levels there is "clearly a chance" that Ipswich could be placed under tighter restrictions in the new year.
He said it is very difficult to predict, but it is important we do what is necessary to control the new variant which has been confirmed in Ipswich, and scientists understand spreads more quickly.
"With the news of the new strain, even though we are in Tier 2, we should go about our business with added caution," said Mr Hunt.
"We are lucky that we can still see our loved ones on Christmas Day, as those in Tier 4 cannot. It is however very important people in Ipswich stay local and only mix households on Christmas Day itself."
Meanwhile, John Ward, leader of Babergh District Council, said he is not surprised that Boris Johnson has refused to rule out a third national lockdown.
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"The rates are rising everywhere, including here in Suffolk," said Mr Ward.
"There is a high probability this will happen as Suffolk only just avoided Tier 3 last week.
"We must get a grip on this. We need to get it under control whatever it takes."
Leader of Ipswich Borough Council, David Ellesmere, said Suffolk's hospitals are "under severe and increasing pressure" and said "unless things change, we are heading for Tier 3 – or possibly even higher" when the situation is next reviewed at the end of December.
Across Ipswich and Colchester hospitals, which form the merged East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT), 180 patients were in hospital beds with Covid-19 as of Friday.
That is up from a peak of 143 during the first wave in April, and West Suffolk’s numbers have also increased slightly from the spring.
Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney, said he hopes we can avoid a third national lockdown - but agreed we must have a "small and responsible Christmas" to avoid putting pressure on hospitals.
"This time of year is a busy time for the NHS, so we must do all we can to keep that pressure down.
"Christmas is a very important time of year for families, and the PM has tried to recognise that, but we must follow his emphasis on being responsible," said Mr Aldous.
"It would be most unfortunate if those vulnerable and elderly people who have avoided the virus so far were to come down with it, especially as they may be just weeks away from getting the vaccine."
What do MPs in north Essex think?
Leaders in parts of northern Essex, such as Colchester and Clacton, said they are "lucky" to be in Tier 2 and residents need to do everything they can to prevent the areas joining the rest of Essex in moving to the most extreme restrictions.
A full lockdown would be "horrendous" according to Clacton's MP Giles Watling, who said the new Covid variant has changed things drastically.
"Initially I was calling for Tendring to be in Tier 1, as the cases were so low here, but now I think we are lucky to be in Tier 2.
"I would love for this to continue, but we just can't risk it," said Mr Watling.
"It would be great if we could relax all the restrictions and just rely on people being sensitive, but evidently we can't.
"It appears people are going to flout these rules, which could lead to the worse case scenario of going into a full lockdown.
"I pray we don't get there, as Tier 4 is pretty much a full lockdown. But the balancing trick of saving the economy and saving lives goes on."
Will Quince, MP for Colchester, added that the figures are concerning and we must do all we can to get the virus down.
"Nobody knows where we are going to be after Christmas," said Mr Quince.
"And the simple answer about whether we could go into another lockdown is I don't know, but we all have a part to play in this decision.
"We can influence this by reducing our social contacts, wearing a mask when required and following the hands, face, space guidelines. We should be doing all we can not to be put into Tier 4."
Like many, for the first time in 37 years Mr Quince will not be seeing his parents at Christmas.
He understands how difficult this will be for people, but says ultimately it is about saving lives and protecting the NHS, so it is there when we need it most.
"Hospitals in Tier 4, in London, Kent and south Essex are under extreme pressure, and it's likely that patients both Covid and non-Covid will be sent to their nearest available hospital, which in some cases will be Colchester," explained Mr Quince.
"I completely understand the decision the prime minister made yesterday to change the Christmas rules, as these are all preventative measures to try and get ahead of the virus.
"If our hospitals become overwhelmed we can't just slam the breaks on."