By DOMINIC HARRISON, Public Health Director Blackburn with Darwen Council

LOCAL authority areas in England will discover today what their tier level will be in the new three-tier structure Covid control strategy announced this week.

I will be very surprised if most of Pennine Lancashire ends up at anything other than tier three. Whether all of Lancashire will be required to move to the same tier level, as in the previous tier negotiations, is not yet clear.

The advantage of such an approach would be that communications, rules and enforcement would be clear for all. The disadvantage is that Lancashire now has very different confirmed case rates across its footprint, with Lancaster District Council for instance now enjoying a rate of confirmed case rates at about 50 per cent of the national and regional average.

In the new framework, tier three looks very much the same as the previous tier three rules which Lancashire entered on the October 17. These arrangements were overtaken by the national lockdown on November 5. Tier two in the new framework however looks slightly stricter than the previous tier two.

My best bet for Lancashire, is that if we are not put into a single tier three rating across the whole footprint, then there will be an east-west split across all of the Lancashire local authorities with east at tier three, west at tier two. For central Lancashire authorities including perhaps Ribble Valley, it will be a difficult judgement call, with Lancaster alone having a case for a tier one rating.

Unlike the previous tier process, the judgement on the tiers and the financial support package for local businesses and residents that accompanies a tier rating is not going to be subject to local negotiation. It will be national package.

The tier rating will last for two weeks only and then be reviewed by national government. This presents the significant risk for local authority areas. They could end up flip-flopping in and out of tiers two and three which will cause problems for guidance, enforcement and public compliance.

The Christmas Covid guidance has been published this week. The core of this UK wide guidance, is that a ‘Christmas bubble’ of up to three households can meet between the December 23 and 27 in a single house. Within the ‘three households’ limit, there appears to be no limit on the actual numbers of people that can be involved.

This will generate a significant additional risk for Pennine Lancashire. We have a much higher proportion of larger families in multi-generational households, a larger percentage of the population in smaller than average houses and a higher than average rate of household based Covid transmission. We are also likely to enter the December 23 Christmas relaxation with a higher than average case rate.

Pennine Lancashire can therefore expect a much bigger ‘hit’ of rising Covid rates and hospitalisations than the national average from week three of January to the end of February.

Welcome as it is for all of us, the Christmas guidance will make a rapid new year exit from tier three, even more challenging for Pennine Lancashire.