Local leaders in Warrington have agreed a deal with ministers for the borough to move to the highest level of coronavirus restrictions, according to reports denied by Downing Street.
With Office for National Statistics data suggesting as many as one in 130 people had the disease in England in the previous week – prompting experts to warn of high, albeit slightly slowing, prevalence – Warrington, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire are in all discussions over an imminent shift to tier 3.
Under this regime, pubs and bars must close unless they can operate as restaurants, while almost all mixing of households is barred and travel is discouraged.
The Warrington Guardian said the deal for the Cheshire town would also close betting shops and gaming centres.
A Downing Street spokesman said he was not able to confirm a final deal, but that “talks with local leaders … ongoing”.
Discussions with the four affected areas were continuing, the spokesman said: “As we’ve said on many occasions, the prime minister clearly wants to create the maximum possible local consensus.”
So far, Liverpool, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire – areas with a combined population of 6 million – have gone into tier 3, amid prolonged wrangling over the amount of compensation offered to affected businesses and staff.
It is understood that talks are also ongoing about a move to tier 3 in north-east England and Tees Valley; however, these discussions are not as urgent due to hopes of a fall in the areas’ Covid infection rate.
According to the latest ONS data, based on swabs from randomly chosen households, there were about 35,200 new cases per day in the community in England from 10-16 October.
The data suggests that at any given time that week around 1 in 130 people had Covid – a total of about 433,300 people. That was a rise from 1 in 160 (336,500 people) in the previous week, and 224,400 the week before that.
The highest infection rates continue to be seen in the north-west and north-east of England, and Yorkshire and the Humber. But the ONS team added: “The gap between the northern regions and other areas seems to be narrowing.”
Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the survey, said the situation was concerning.
“Prevalence is high and still increasing rapidly,” he said. “There may be some sign of a slight slowdown, but, given the urgent need for prevalence to start to go down, we should not focus on small reductions in a still positive growth rate.”
The latest estimates for new infections are on the lower end of those released by the MRC Biostatistics Unit Covid-19 Working Group, which on Wednesday suggested there could be 35,100–82,100 new infections a day in England.
But the ONS figures confirm a trend that will cause deep concern: cases are seeping into the elderly population.
“There has been growth in Covid-19 infection rates in all age groups over the past two weeks including those aged over 70 years, with the current rates highest in older teenagers and young adults,” the ONS team reports.
The No 10 spokesman reiterated the government’s hope for people in England to be able to hold more regular Christmas celebrations, while giving no details of how this might happen.
“The prime minister has been clear previously that he is hopeful that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas,” he said. “We’ve been clear about the ambition to ensure that people may be able to celebrate Christmas as a family this year.”