The North East's blurred lines of defence against coronavirus

Nearly two million people in Northumberland, Tyneside, Wearside and County Durham are living under lockdown restrictions. Credit: PA Images

It does feel a lot like history repeating itself, at speed. Six months since lockdown began, the Prime Minister announced a new set of national restrictions to tackle the rising number of Covid-19 cases, and warned they may well need to be in place for another six months.

Then came the Chancellor again with some more economic medicine. There are people panic-buying once more. Care homes in Middlesbrough, and surely many other places too, have been asked to prepare for another wave of patients leaving hospital with coronavirus.

We have, as the Health Secretary regularly refers to, several initial "lines of defence", all aimed at breaking the chains of transmission. They are: social distancing, test and trace, and the ability to impose extra restrictions on society, at varying levels.

I think they can be seen in that order, but are also very interconnected. Extra restrictions are a stronger and more enforced form of social distancing. 

Staff at a drive through coronavirus testing centre for NHS staff in Gateshead. Credit: PA Images

You'd hope not to need those extra restrictions, if social distancing and test and trace were working well in the first place. But too many people are apparently breaking the rules, and we know all about the issues many have faced with getting a test and getting your results back.

If test and trace was working really well, any extra restrictions could be very targeted. This is what ministers talked about back in the spring, hoping to be able to identify flare-ups at a "micro level" and close individual schools or workplaces to stop the spread.

There have been examples of that happening, of course, but the clear picture right now is of vast swathes of the country under 'local' restrictions, and everyone under a new national set.

It was only last Friday when new rules came into force for nearly two million people across Northumberland, Newcastle, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham, aimed at tackling a surge of cases in the area which is thought to have been driven by contact in pubs and similar venues, and in each other's homes.

Matt Hancock confirming lockdown restrictions would imposed in seven North East local authorities at midnight on September 17. Credit: PA Images

By Monday morning, the government's top two scientists were warning the virus was spreading across the great majority of the country, and on Tuesday the PM set out the new national rules.

Many of those rules, such as 10pm closing times, are the same as what had just been put in place across that northern part of the North East. It felt like that previous announcement being rendered rather pointless.

There are distinctions though - most importantly meaning those living in the council areas named above are not allowed to socialise with people who aren't part of their household or support bubble, and those living in the southern part of the region are still allowed to do so. As long as you're complying with other rules, like the Rule of Six.

Then last night, all parts of the Tees Valley - Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton, Darlington and Redcar and Cleveland - were placed on the government's Covid-19 'watchlist' as 'Areas for Enhanced Support'. That means more resources like mobile testing units being provided, and a 'medium/high' risk of more restrictions there.

It's too soon to tell if the stricter rules that are in place further north are having an effect. But Newcastle's director of public health told us yesterday that the city is "teetering on the edge" of needing further restrictions after a sharp rise in infections.

So things are moving very fast. They are also increasingly complicated. Few will want to return to anything like that first national lockdown, but it was at least pretty straightforward, with everyone under the same rules. This time around, it feels like taking personal responsibility is even more important, if our blurred lines of defence are going to stand up against the virus' second wave.