Plans to lift coronavirus restrictions for more than half a million people in Greater Manchester have been thrown into “chaos and confusion” as local leaders urged the government to change course after a sharp rise in infections.
Less than 24 hours before restrictions on social visits were due to be lifted on Wednesday, two local authorities covering more than 520,000 people warned the government it was too early to ease the measures.
Council leaders in Bolton and Trafford wrote to Matt Hancock on Tuesday asking him to change course, only four days after the health secretary announced the plans. The infection rate in both boroughs is currently several times the average for England.
The 11th-hour reversal comes only four days after Hancock announced that more than 1 million people would be allowed to visit their friends and family again from Wednesday.
The announcement prompted fury among Labour MPs and council leaders, who accused the government of overruling local public health decisions in order to appease Conservative MPs. Most of the areas where restrictions are due to be lifted are at least partly represented by Conservative politicians.
Conservative-led Bolton council had last week asked to be removed from the restrictions imposed on 31 July, while the Labour-run Trafford council warned it was too early to do so.
Andrew Western, the Labour leader of Trafford council, wrote to Hancock on Tuesday to complain that his authority’s health officials had been overruled to appease Tory MPs in what he describe as a “haphazard and nakedly political approach”.
In a letter, he told the health secretary that Trafford’s infection rate had increased 100% over the past week and that its representations, urging for restrictions to be kept in place for at least two weeks to allow the safe opening of schools, had been “completely ignored”. The area’s Tory MP Graham Brady, the influential chair of the Conservatives’ 1922 committee, had wanted the measures to be eased.
Western wrote: “In short, this decision has caused chaos and confusion that not only impacts potentially on the health of my residents but of the likelihood of compliance in neighbouring boroughs that now have a lower rate of infection than Trafford. The proposed arrangements now make little sense.”
Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, has backed calls for Hancock to publish the scientific advice behind his decision to ease restrictions. He said: “If lockdown decisions are thought to be being made on a party political basis then all trust in those decisions will go. Matt Hancock needs to publish all the scientific evidence he is basing these decisions on as a matter of urgency.”
The decision announced by Hancock means that several areas – including Manchester, Salford, Rochdale, Bury and Tameside – are all recording lower rates of infection than Bolton yet restrictions remain in place in those areas beyond Wednesday.
It is understood that the Conservative leader of Bolton council, David Greenhalgh, and others had wanted the town of 285,000 people to be freed from the lockdown measures but that the picture changed over the bank holiday weekend.
Local leaders became alarmed at an increase in cases that has seen its infection rate rise to the highest in England, alongside Oldham, according to NHS Digital data published on Tuesday.
The town recorded 161 new cases in the week to 28 August, more than double the previous week, according to NHS Digital data. The increase meant Bolton’s infection rate rose to 56.4 cases per 100,000 people, the joint highest in England alongside Oldham.
Yasmin Qureshi, the Labour MP for Bolton South East, said: “A lot of people want Bolton out of the restrictions but the facts and figures show a different picture. I would support the fact that they should continue but the question is for how long? It’s something that needs to be continuously reviewed.”