Hannah Miller: Why everyone needs to pay attention to what’s happening with coronavirus in Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester has been under new coronavirus restrictions for over a month now, but cases continue to rise. Credit: PA

Blog by Hannah MillerCovid-19 infection rates are rising, despite restrictions that are much tougher than the Government plans to introduce elsewhere, writes Political Correspondent Hannah Miller.

The country is getting to grips with the new ‘rule of six’, but that amounts to relative freedom compared to what more than two million people have had to endure since the beginning of August.It’s now been more than five weeks that people in some parts of both Greater Manchester and Lancashire have been banned from having family and friends round to their home or garden.

The guidance is even tougher than the law and more complicated - you shouldn’t go to the pub (or any indoor public venue) with anyone you don’t live with, in Oldham even an outdoor picnic in the park with an individual friend would be breaking the law.

Bolton has had tighter restrictions imposed this week with all hospitality venues forced to serve take away only. Credit: ITV News

But despite the restrictions in Greater Manchester infection rates are still going up. Right now the week-on-week trend is rising in eight out of ten boroughs. In every single one it is higher than when restrictions were first announced. Bolton has the highest infection rate in the country, with hospitality this week forced to close. Nearby North West areas of Preston, Tameside, Salford, Blackburn, Burnley and Hyndburn all make the national top ten that no one wants to be on.The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham admits that the effectiveness of the restrictions has ’diminished’ over the weeks. Some politicians had been wary of openly criticising the rules for fear of undermining the public health message, until yesterday Wythenshawe and Sale East MP Mike Kane said in the House of Commons what many have been thinking - ‘restrictions in Greater Manchester are not working.’It’s difficult to pin-point a single reason why rates are going in the wrong direction - a lack of compliance and public confusion are undoubtedly in the mix, along with living and working conditions that led Public Health England to suggest the virus has been ‘endemic’ in some parts of the North West all summer.

But public health officials also say that issues with the 'Test and Trace' are adding to the problem - in Lancashire, the Director of Public Health says the Government system is missing around a third of cases - either people aren’t engaging, or it isn’t reaching out to them. Add to that issues around access to testing and it’s not surprising frustration is rising as well.

Credit: PA

In Bolton, there have been claims that the spike in cases relates to a single infected person going on a pub crawl. There may be more to it, but those who believe this explanation say the surge couldn’t have been foreseen. Yet if people really were social distancing, if venues really were ‘Covid-secure’, could one person have spread it in the way this theory claims? We know there are people who carry the virus but display no symptoms. If the actions of one infected person can cause the shut down of hospitality across a whole town, then that ought to be a lesson in itself.Many of those who don’t like restrictions use the low numbers of hospitalisations to make their case. But the number of people going to hospital with Covid-19 in the area has more doubled in the past week, according to Greater Manchester Combined Authority - albeit from a low base of 16, up to 35. Andy Burnham describes the rise as ‘significant’ but says it is too soon to know whether this is a trend. We’re also told the age profile of cases is increasing, as it has done in other countries as well.For those who don’t live in the affected areas, why should any of this matter? To answer that just look at Wigan - a town where throughout all this, the numbers of cases have been comparatively low. As a result, it was the first to be released from tighter measures several weeks ago, but now Covid is on the march there as well. Proof, as if it were needed, that once the virus is spreading around the community it doesn’t respect local authority borders. It’s the same story as across the country.The Health Secretary has acknowledged he’s in discussions about what should happen in Greater Manchester next, but what has happened here ought to serve as a warning to the rest of the country.

In more than seventy local authorities the infection rate is higher now than it was when these much tougher measures on socialising were introduced. The ‘rule of six’ being introduced across the country on Monday is less stringent than people in parts of the North West have been living with for weeks. Will it be enough to work?