We are just in the first full week of December and quite incredibly the first Covid vaccines have already been administered. The significance and the enormity of having a vaccine available is hard to express but the joy and uplift it has given us all is palpable and huge congratulations to all concerned are well and truly deserved. A truly remarkable achievement.  Here in Middlesbrough, a patient at James Cook University Hospital was the first to receive the vaccine early this morning. It is certainly a momentous day in the fight against this pandemic.

We have Christmas just around the corner but the mood is still very mixed. There is undoubtedly continued and justified anxiety. There’s also frustration along with a yearning to get back to normal. But the question is how we resolve those competing concerns and desires.

My starting and end point is the data. In Middlesbrough we’re hovering around the 170 per 100,000 of population mark. We’re in Tier 3 and our economy is massively restricted and I sense many people are understandably getting more and more desperate to get their businesses back up and running and workers are equally desperate to see their incomes restored. So many people have suffered so much, and that suffering continues. So it’s pretty hard to reconcile the restrictions they are all having to put up with when they cast their eyes to London and see London Boroughs with similar, and in many cases higher rates of infection in their communities, in Tier 2 and without the restrictions that we in Middlesbrough are subjected to.

There is a glaring inconsistency, and many people say with some considerable justification that this is grossly unfair and demonstrates a lack of even-handedness on the part of the government. I’ve got to say that on the evidence, they have a point.

So, what should happen in Middlesbrough? There are two major considerations here: Public Health and our economy. They are inextricably linked but we have to think about what is the most important.

Despite today’s wonderful news, the vaccines are still some way off being rolled out across our communities. Yes, our elderly and frontline workers will be prioritised and quite rightly so, but it’s going to be many weeks and months before the vaccinations are universally deployed.

So, we have to put one side our joy about the vaccine in terms of the days immediately ahead of us especially leading up to Christmas. We have to deal with the here and now.

Obviously like many others, I will be watching the data as we run up to the review of our status around the 15th/16th December. What really worries me is the massive pressure that’s building to lift the lid at the precise time when there is pent up desire to break free and enjoy the Christmas spirit.

The very serious concern I have is that people will inevitably mix  with one another and even doing the best they can around “hands, face and space”, the inevitable consequence will be a spread of the virus and I fear another spike in cases again in January. This is exactly what happened when the announcement of the national lockdown we’ve just come out of, was leaked. The data shows that mobility increased rapidly ahead of the then looming lockdown and cases spiked after the lockdown started. The danger is that pre-Christmas relaxations will produce exactly the same result.

We’re told that this is no magic formula for deciding which Tier we go into. There are of course criteria to be applied but ultimately, it’s a subjective judgment. But uppermost in that assessment has to be the headline rate of infection, as well as assessing the picture in terms of hospital admissions, ICU bed capacity and so on.

So, if we look to the judgement to be made on 15th/16th of this month, hopefully we will see a yet further reduction in the rate, but I fear it may not be that dramatic a fall if indeed there is any fall at all in the rate. If that turns out to be the case, I cannot see that it would be in our interests to lift the current restrictions painful as that will undoubtedly be.

It’s worth reflecting that the rate on 11th March was 11.3; on 3rd July 6.4; on 8th October 300; on 30th Nov 499.4 and in recent days we’ve been around 169-173. A big reduction from almost 500 but way above where we were in March and July.

I fully recognise that for the majority of businesses these weeks running up to Christmas are the most important for them in trading terms and for some it may determine whether they go bust or not- and that reveals the total inadequacy of the support they’ve received- but I ask the question; will a relaxation be worth it if it causes the case numbers to spike and caused yet more people to die.

I am agonising over what would be right for us all here in Middlesbrough, but in the final analysis I can only conclude that the public’s health must take precedence over all other considerations. If we don’t look after public health right now at this critical stage, I can only conclude that, not only will cases increase with yet further deaths, even more damage will be caused to our economy which will take even longer to recover as a result.

This is going to a very difficult period for us but it falls to each and every one of us in Middlesbrough, and across the country, to take all sensible precautions, to restrict our contacts within the guidance and as much as  possible in any event, and continue to make those sacrifices safe in the knowledge that the pain now will be worth the gain in 2021. There is indeed light at the end of the tunnel but let’s not make that tunnel any longer than it needs to be.

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