Virus restrictions demand level playing field if Tiers are to work – Andrew Vine

LEEDS city centre was thronged with people when I went Christmas shopping at the weekend, which was a sight to lift the spirits.

Fingers crossed this surge of trade over the next 10 days will be enough to see the shops, and the staff whose livelihoods depend on them in every 
town and city centre in Yorkshire, through to a hopefully less precarious New Year.

But there was a worryingly apparent flip side to the crowds and queues for checkouts. For every person being scrupulous about social distancing, another just wasn’t bothering, squeezing uncomfortably close in the aisles in the quest for a bargain or the perfect gift for granny.

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They should know better by now. The fact that they don’t means, regrettably, that those of us living under the most severe tier of Covid-19 restrictions are better off staying that way for now.

Will Christmas shoppers trigger another spike in Covid cases as the Government consider new restrictions for London?
Will Christmas shoppers trigger another spike in Covid cases as the Government consider new restrictions for London?

A lot of hopes are riding on tomorrow’s review of which tier every area of England should be in. Those running the pubs and restaurants of West and South Yorkshire are desperate for a downgrade from Tier 3 to 2, so they can reopen and at least be in with a chance of making something from the Christmas trade that is so important to them.

But the shoppers in Leeds tell a story that there are still too many people who don’t behave responsibly for that to happen. If they won’t do it whilst stone-cold sober in M&S, they certainly won’t after half-a-dozen pints in a pub, however many scotch eggs they wolf down to soak the ale up and comply with the rules on food being served.

The brakes need to be kept on this pandemic for now, however bitter a blow that is for the hospitality industry. One reason for that is that the irresponsible not only need to be protected from themselves, but from becoming the unwitting spreaders of illness to others.

Another is that Britain stands on the verge of possibly a horribly difficult winter in which a surge in coronavirus is the last thing we need when the NHS is likely to be dealing with the familiar pressures caused by flu in the elderly and vulnerable.

Are Christmas shoppers inadvertently spread Covid?

NHS chiefs once again voiced their concerns at the weekend that the Christmas amnesty from restrictions allowing households to celebrate together for five days will result in a new spike in Covid-19.

The backdrop that could make winter such a challenge is the uncertainty over Brexit. The Government, by its own admission, is preparing for a messy no-deal exit from the EU that could see disruption to supplies of food and medicines coming from Europe, and parts of industry grinding to a halt if imports of raw materials are affected.

Add to that the usual turmoil caused to transport by a heavy snowfall, and the months ahead might be as fraught as the worst parts of this year everyone is keen to put behind us.

Easing the Tier 3 restrictions in areas of the North where infection rates remain worryingly high against such a backdrop would be folly, however desperately sorry everybody feels for those whose businesses and jobs might suffer.

Christmas shoppers in Briggate, Leeds, as the Government prepares to make a new announcement on Tier arrangements.

The North, though, needs to know that it is being treated fairly by the Government when the national review takes place this week – and it appears, albeit belatedly, that Ministers no longer regard London as a special case as the capital is moved to Tier 3 status from early tomorrow as a pre-emptive move.

Infection rates in parts of the capital are much higher than in parts of Yorkshire, yet London’s placing in Tier 2 until this week allowed its hospitality industry to stay open, with some venues blatantly bending the rules.

It made my blood boil to see one bar owner on television crowing about getting round the requirement that pubs can only serve drinks with food by having deliveries of McDonald’s takeaways and handing them out to customers. Very ingenious, but this sort of chicanery needs to be stamped on by the local authorities.

If London had been allowed to remain in Tier 2 despite spiralling infection rates, it risked undermining much hard work and economic pain endured in Yorkshire, and beyond, to knuckle down and do the right thing in controlling coronavirus as part of the wider national effort.

Thankfully, Health Secretary Matt Hancock now accepts that such double standards aren’t justifiable. There has to be a level playing field on restrictions if public confidence in them as a means of keeping people safe is to be maintained.

I can’t be alone in talking to increasing numbers of people who believe the worst is over because vaccinations have begun. Crowds of shoppers jostling each other on Saturday afternoon showed that there’s a touch of complacency in the air, and that’s dangerous.

Nobody wants to be in Tier 3, nor to see the upset and fears for the future of those in hospitality, but for now it’s the safest place to be.

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