Ministers have been accused of “political interference” over local lockdowns as leaked emails show wealthy areas are avoiding restrictions despite having higher Covid-19 rates than poorer areas.
The Government is under pressure to explain why large parts of the north and Midlands are under local lockdowns while overlooking areas with similar infection rates.
Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen, in Lancashire area, wrote to Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), saying the measures were “avoidably increasing economic inequality”.
In an email, seen by the Sunday Times, he said: “There is now a different level of central control applied across local authorities, with some of the more economically challenged boroughs being placed into more restrictive control measures at an earlier point in their … case rate trajectory.
“This has the effect of exacerbating the economic inequality impacts of the virus in those areas. We urgently need consistency in the national strategy if the control system itself is not to add to inequality, giving an economic ‘double whammy’ to more challenged areas.”
Labour’s Jon Ashworth raised questions about why seats belonging to senior ministers such as Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and Chief Whip Mark Spencer had been spared tougher measures.
“I think because there is no clear guidelines as to why an area goes into restrictions and how an area comes out of restrictions then there is a suspicion that there is political interference – I hope there isn’t,” he told the BBC.
“But until the Government publish clear guidelines, that suspicion will always linger.”
Rishi Sunak’s seat in North Yorkshire, has 73 new cases for every 100,000 people, is one of the least deprived areas in Britain.
Newark, represented by Mr Jenrick, the housing secretary, and Sherwood, Mr Spencer’s seat, stands at 84 per 100,000 but have avoided lockdown.
In contrast, Blackburn with Darwen is one of Britain’s poorest boroughs and its Covid rate peaked at 212 weekly cases per 100,000 people.
But when officials first imposed lockdowns in the area in August, they intervened in wards where the rate exceeded 60 weekly cases per 100,000.
In areas where infections exceed 70 but lockdown has been avoided, the majority were represented by Tory MPs.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham warned the Government was “in danger of losing the public in the North of England”.
The Labour politician told Sky News people were “fed up” with local lockdowns, which were like “Hotel California syndrome, you check in and you can never leave”.
“We need a bit of a reset here so that people can clearly understand what’s being asked,” he said.
“I certainly feel this week that we’ve reached a bit of a turning point with all of this.
“The Government is really in danger of losing the public in the North of England. And actually if they carry on imposing restrictions on the North without proper support for the businesses and the employees affected in the North, we will see a winter of levelling down and the North-South divide getting bigger.”
Boris Johnson said it was “too early to say” whether local lockdown measures were working when grilled on the measures imposed on millions of Britons.
He told the BBC: “Nobody want to impose these types of things but the advice that we are getting is that in these areas where we’ve got local lockdowns – stringent local lockdowns – we need to wait and see whether the R starts to come down.
“Some of these things have been intensified and the ratchet, as it were, has been tightened just in the last few days, so you’ve got to wait and see whether the rate of infection starts to come down.”
The Prime Minister said he appreciated the “fatigue” people were feeling at new restrictions.
Asked why tough measures imposed in Manchester did not appear to be working, he said: “I think that there are there are all sorts of factors in play, and clearly what’s happened is that we put a lot more load back onto the risk factor, in the sense that we’ve got schools back, we’ve got businesses back, things are moving again in a way that they weren’t during the lockdown of March and April.
“But we’ve also managed to keep hospital admissions much, much lower than they were during that period, we’ve managed to keep the death rate down, although obviously we have to make sure that we keep it down.
“The balance is, how do you ensure that places across the country continue to fight the virus effectively whilst keeping the economy moving.”