Two regional leaders have urged millions of residents to ignore the government’s easing of the coronavirus lockdown and stay at home after the rate of infection was shown to be dangerously high in their areas.
The call was made by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, after a report by Public Health England and Cambridge University placed the R number – a key measure of how much COVID-19 is spreading – just above one in the North West.
A value of one or higher indicates the coronavirus will spread at an increasing rate through the population, while a value less than one indicates it is in decline.
However, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the government’s scientific advisory group (SAGE) still believed the R number was below one in all regions.
It comes as the government moved to further relax the pandemic restrictions and kick-start the economy, which is facing a deep recession and large-scale job losses as a result of the pandemic, including allowing non-essential shops to open.
In a joint statement, Mr Burnham, who is mayor for an area of 2.8 million people, and Mr Rotheram, whose region has 1.5 million, stressed the need “not to over-react” to the report’s findings and pointed out the number of infections and deaths in their areas were coming down.
But they did say the rise in the R number was “a warning sign that must be taken seriously”.
They added: “First and foremost, we ask everyone to make a renewed commitment to follow the official guidance and to stay at home as much as possible.
“In fact, we would go further and advise people to err on the side of caution and not take full advantage of all the freedoms now available.
“Staying at home is the best way we can protect ourselves, and each other, and get the R number in the North West back below one.”
The pair repeated their view that the easing of the restrictions nationally was too soon for the North West and was done “without proper consultation or forward planning”.
They also argued that the suggested government strategy of “local lockdown” measures to fight any flare-up of the virus in particular areas was “not helpful” and a “cause for serious concern”.
Instead, the two mayors pressed for more detailed local information to identify at-risk areas, which could then be used to provide targeted messages and advice.
Both called for the government to revise its guidance on the reopening of schools and leave the decision to headteachers, in consultation with councils.
Financial support would also be needed for people forced to self-isioate under the test and trace system, they said, and repeated their call for regions to have seats on the COBRA emergency committee, similar to the devolved administrations.