COUNCIL leaders across Cheshire have penned a letter to the Government expressing concerns over its Covid-19 lockdown strategy.

The letter - which is signed by all of the county's council leaders, including Warrington Borough Council's Cllr Russ Bowden - has been addressed to Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government, and calls for clarity on key workers, plus extra financial support for employers and employees to ensure people can stay at home.

It comes amid what council leaders say is a 'more liberal interpretation of lockdown' which has seen more people having to work away from home, with a noticeable increase in the number of people using public and private transport compared to previous lockdowns.

The council leaders add there has been 'confusion' over what is classed as a critical worker and a vulnerable child, has led to that being 'applied inconsistently between schools facing different local circumstances'.

The council leaders are therefore calling for further national tightening of lockdown regulations, and oppose a 'premature' lifting of lockdown, given that coronavirus infection rates across all Cheshire boroughs rose rapidly after the November lockdown.

The letter has been signed by all council leaders in Cheshire - Cheshire West and Chester Council's Cllr Louise Gittins, Cheshire East Council's Cllr Sam Corcoran, Warrington Borough Council's Cllr Russ Bowden and Halton Borough Council's Cllr Rob Polhill, as well as the deputy leader of Cheshire East Council, Cllr Craig Browne.

It has also been signed by the chair of the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership Clare Hayward MBE, and Cheshire Police and Crime Commissioner David Keane.

The letter also calls for continued 'lateral flow testing' support, which sees test results delivered in about 30 minutes, after Monday saw by far the highest one-day number of lateral flow tests carried out across Cheshire – 5,739.

The letter reads:

Dear Secretaries of State

We are writing to you jointly to set out the views of partners across Cheshire on the current lockdown arrangements, concerns about the impact on schools and our NHS, and progress in the deployment of testing and vaccines.

We support the need for a lockdown. It is the minimum necessary to address the alarming acceleration of the virus that we have seen across our communities, and address the deeply concerning pressures on our hospitals.

However, the regulations have left too many areas of social and economic interaction subject to uncertainty. Last spring there was widespread public compliance with a simple and effective message. In contrast this time, the clarity of the "stay at home" message is undermined by ambiguity between regulations and guidelines; making public compliance more difficult to secure, and creating challenges for our enforcement authorities. For example, regulations enable people to exercise far from home, congregate in beauty-spots and public places, and travel for click-and-collect shopping.

The more liberal interpretation of lockdown in the current regulations means that many more people are required to work away from home, increasing the risks that their communities will continue to be disproportionately affected. Travel in private and public transport is more significant than in the previous lockdowns. We also have evidence that mask-wearing is not sufficiently enforceable in indoor public places, or in outdoor areas where people are in close proximity.

We would support additional national measures that tighten these areas further, to be implemented alongside further financial support for businesses and their employees, and the self employed.

The process for partial closure of schools was chaotic and poorly communicated by government, leaving our school staff, parents and pupils to deal with a terrible conflict between the education of children and the protection of public health. Our teachers and support staff, supported by our council teams, have been nothing short of heroic. But the constantly changing definition of critical workers and vulnerable children, applied inconsistently between schools facing different local circumstances, has again created confusion. We would urge the government to settle on a clear set of guidelines based on medical evidence, which schools can apply flexibly in support of their local circumstances.

We would also oppose a premature lifting of the lockdown. Cheshire experienced a rapid escalation between tiers during the Christmas period, which created real suffering amongst our local business community. Nothing would be more destabilising to business than more uncertainty about the regulations they will face.

We support retaining lockdown until we see a sustained period of reduced infection, the immediate pressures on our hospitals have been resolved, and the vaccine has protected those who are at highest risk of hospital admission and serious illness.

We should then exit with a clear strategy in place for recovery and renewal, supported by additional investment in our economy and communities.

We welcome the extension of asymptomatic testing under local management, and also the recognition by government that this cannot provide a "freedom pass" to breach the lockdown rules. We will deliver testing locally as part of a wider public health response, with tests made available only to those with unavoidable and repeated contact outside their households; including schools, care homes, critical businesses and front-line public services. We urge government to ensure a sufficient supply of lateral flow devises to meet this need, and to ensure councils have the funding required to deliver the programme effectively and safely. We expect this to remain in place long after the lockdown is eased. Public health programmes will need sustained investment, long after the peak of infection is passed.

Finally, we welcome the progress being made to roll out the vaccine. Councils are playing an important role in support of the local NHS, and we are committed to moving through the priority groups as quickly as possible. More local discretion would enable us to target specific communities, groups and individuals, based on evidence of the local public health benefit. We regret that community-level data is still not available publicly, despite the huge public interest in understanding the role [sic] out of the vaccine locally, and the links to our local outbreak plans.

We urge you to learn lessons from the role out of local track and trace which has been hampered by excessive command-and-control, and the confusion created by the recent letter sent to some over-80s about the regional vaccine sites. For most of our over-80s, attendance at the Manchester city centre site is not a viable or safe option, and we will need a greater focus on more accessible and community-based sites if progress is to be made rapidly.

This letter reflects our commitment to play our part in the next stage of response to this terrible virus. A strong and flexible local response is critical to success, and we urge you to respond quickly to the issues we have raised.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor Sam Corcoran

Leader of the Council, Leader of the Labour Group

Cheshire East Council

Councillor Louise Gittins

Leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council

Councillor Craig Browne

Deputy Leader, Leader of the Independent Group

Cheshire East Council

Councillor Russ Bowden

Leader of Warrington Borough Council

Clare Hayward MBE DL

Chair, Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership

Councillor Rob Polhill

Leader of Halton Borough Council

David Keane

Police and Crime Commissioner for Cheshire