The decision to place most of Essex in Tier 3 is a huge disappointment but sadly was unavoidable. All of us had hoped that when our Tier 2 status was due to be reviewed on 16th December, it would be possible to relax the restrictions. However, the figures that I saw at an emergency meeting on Sunday showed clearly that the existing measures already in place have failed to stop the spread of the virus. It was also obvious that action needed to be taken swiftly and that we could not wait for the review.
In almost every district of Essex, the numbers are rising rapidly. In Maldon, positive cases per 100,000 have gone from below 10 in September to over 180 now. In Basildon, cases have doubled in a week, putting it among the highest in the country. Already there is pressure on all our local hospitals and the lag between infection and the need for hospital admission means that this is bound to increase.
I am only too aware how distressing it is that once again pubs and restaurants must close and that meetings outside one’s own household cannot take place. However, similar, and in some cases tougher, restrictions have had to be put in place across the UK and in almost every other country in Europe. At the moment, it is still intended to relax the restrictions over the few days of Christmas to allow families to get together. However, it is essential that everyone abides by the rules and behaves sensibly, otherwise we may need to continue and even tighten restrictions in January.
I am in close touch with the Department of Health, the Essex Local Resilience Forum, Essex County Council and the District and City Councils, all of whom are working together in the efforts to beat the virus and to help us get through. The Government has already provided over £280 billion in support and is extending the furlough scheme until March and the self-employed scheme until April. Grants have also been given to businesses that have been forced to close. The Christmas holiday free school meals voucher scheme is now operating, helping nearly 35,000 children and young people in the county. Anyone finding it difficult to pay bills for essential items can also apply for help from the Essential Living Fund.
I know that this Christmas is going to be difficult for everyone and we will all miss our usual festive gatherings and celebrations. However, I am convinced that it is necessary to avoid even greater harm to lives and livelihoods. There is also real hope on the horizon in the form of the vaccine which has been developed in record time, in large part by British scientists. This is already being administered in care homes and at Basildon Hospital, as well as the Medical Centre in Danbury with more locations to follow. I encourage everyone to have this as soon as they receive an invitation to attend. That way we can look forward to being able to lift all restrictions sometime next year.