Talks on North East moving to tier 3 COVID-19 restrictions paused

Talks about the North East potentially moving under the strictest coronavirus rules have been paused - according to government sources. 

The region, including the Tees Valley, will remain in the middle tier of COVID-19 restrictions.

The Government's focus has been elsewhere - with South Yorkshire the latest area where pubs and other venues will be closed - and the pressure on local leaders in the North East to accept tighter rules has eased off over the last few days.

Last night the Health Secretary said there were "no imminent plans to make a change" to the alert level and today Downing Street sources said that - because of signs of progress in controlling the virus - talks have been paused.

It comes after North East leaders, in a written statement, urged the government to "look at the local evidence" before forcing the region into Tier 3 lockdown measures earlier on Wednesday.

Council bosses pleaded with ministers not to push them into the highest level of Covid-19 restrictions, as has now happened with Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire, having been granted a reprieve last week to prove that existing Tier 2 restrictions are working.

Leaders from Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and County Durham say that infection rates are slowing in the region and that there are "no significant pressures" on local hospitals.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that Greater Manchester was being put into a Tier 3 lockdown, amid a bitter feud with metro mayor Andy Burnham and other local leaders that saw talks over a business support package break down.

And South Yorkshire has today become the latest region to be placed under Tier 3 restrictions, but health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that there are "no imminent plans" for the North East to be put into the strictest lockdown category.

In a statement issued on Wednesday morning, North East leaders urged the public to "please keep doing your bit" to get the virus under control and avoid tougher measures.

They added: "We know it is difficult not to be able to physically see and hold loved ones, to enjoy a night out with friends at the theatre or down the pub but by not mixing households and following the rules you are making a difference. 

"We are disappointed that Greater Manchester has had Tier 3 imposed upon it without agreed economic support and we urge the government to engage with us and look at the local evidence before forcing us down the same path. 

"Our Public Health directors are working closely together and across the region, we are seeing early indications of a levelling off in cases. 

"NHS colleagues are working very hard to keep services open and are reporting no significant pressures, however, we urge everyone to use NHS services appropriately. 

"We continue to engage with government and will demonstrate how the latest data shows the restrictions we introduced across the region on September 18 - ahead of the national tiering system - appear to be having an impact."

Bars and pubs would be forced to close if the North East is placed under Tier 3 'Very High' restrictions unless they serve 'substantial' food.

Current restrictions in the region ban people from different households from mixing indoors, but people can visit pubs and restaurants with those from their own household or support bubble.

Reducing social contact remains key to stopping the spread of COVID-19 Credit: PA

In their statement, the North East leaders said they would "continue to lobby strongly for a realistic package of economic support" and again urged for local officials to be given control over test and trace efforts.

It is imperative we don't let our guard slip or lure ourselves into a false sense of security just because we are seeing a slowly improving picture. To do so would undo all your hard work. The past few weeks has seen the North East united with public, businesses, residents and communities all working together to tackle the pandemic. We all need to keep doing our bit.

North East leaders joint-statement

The statement was issued by council leaders Nick Forbes, Martin Gannon, Glen Sanderson, Norma Redfearn, Iain Malcolm, Graeme Miller, and Simon Henig, plus North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll and Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness.

Mr Hancock told the House of Commons on Tuesday: "It is important that we take the action if it is necessary, but there are early signs that the number of cases in the North East is starting to flatten.

"In the first instance, that is happening among younger people and I am still worried about the number of cases for over 60s who of course are the people who are most likely to end up in hospital or worse.

"So we will keep a very close eye on the situation but we have no imminent plans to make a change and were the clinical advice to change that we needed to move urgently, then, of course, we would seek to do that with the support of the local area."