Introducing tighter coronavirus restrictions early risks eroding public trust, warns Southend councillor

Southend Council could lose the trust of the public if it followed Essex County Council in calling for stricter coronavirus restrictions when cases remain low, the leader the Conservatives has warned.

Essex County Council is taking the unprecedented step of urging the Government to put the county on ‘high’ alert – the middle of the new three-tier system – in a proactive bid to slow the spread of the virus.

But neighbouring authorities in Southend and Thurrock have refused put in similar requests.

Independent councillor Trevor Harp who chairs Southend’s local outbreak control plan oversight and engagement board called it the “right path to take” as the “we do not believe that our rate of infection merits a request to move up tiers”.

The leader of Southend’s Conservative group Councillor Tony Cox also warned taking decisions prematurely could harm the public’s trust in the council and labelled the decision by county leaders “odd”.

He said: “Thanks to the efforts in Southend we remain on medium risk, tier one, with one of the lowest rates of infection.

“Whatever happens elsewhere in Essex, we should not be moved to tier two. The decision made by Essex is rather odd and not one I support at this time.”

He continued: “I am not seeing how this is the logical way. There is a balancing act but there is no evidence to suggest that if you take action with stronger restrictions now at a low risk, you will drive that risk down further.

“By and large most people been compliant in Southend and they don’t want to help spread a risk. That is the reason we have the low rates we do. People have been compliant and willing to engage but if we do go and bring in these restrictions too early, we risk eroding that trust.”

Cllr Cox also criticised the national Labour Party’s call for a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, which could see the whole country on lockdown for a period of two to three weeks.

He branded the idea “a job breaker and mental health breaker”.

Cllr Lesley Salter (Con), who is also part of the outbreak control board said it remains unclear whether the Government will even accept the county council’s request.

“We really don’t know how the Government will react to this,” she said.

“You have places like Manchester and London saying they don’t want to be in tier two so I don’t know how they will react when Essex comes along and says they want to be.

“We don’t know what will happen.”

She added: “I can see Essex’s worry, especially as their numbers are worse than ours but I can’t see why we would be putting ourselves in the same place as places like Manchester which is tier two.”

It is understood that opinions within the council were split over whether to support the county’s decision causing a degree of conflict.

It is possible the council will revisit the decision if cases continue to climb.

Under ‘medium’ alert, which is the level Southend currently stands, the restrictions allow a maximum of six people to meet indoors or outdoors and a curfew means pubs must close by 10pm.

If this were to escalate to ‘high’ then no households would be allowed to mix indoors, meaning many families could be prevented seeing each other during the Christmas period if the region stayed in this tier during the festive period.

The highest alert level recommends people do not travel outside of the area they live in and forces all pubs and bars not serving hot food to close.

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter