‘The fear was palpable’: How Bolton avoided third major lockdown despite Covid cases still surging

Colin Drury
·6-min read
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It was early September when Bolton made national headlines as it took that most dreaded of current titles: the place with the country’s worst coronavirus infection rates.

Back then, action was swift. Bars and restaurants were shut for four weeks. Extra test and trace capacity was brought into town. David Greenhalgh, the Conservative council leader, took to the airwaves to rage at one lad who had gone on a pub crawl while infected.

“We had about 120 cases [per every 100,000 people] at the time,” Nadim Muslim, the council’s cabinet member for communities, tells The Independent today. “What I’d give for those numbers right now.”

At the latest count, Bolton now has 272 cases per 100,000 people.

In hard data alone, its efforts to contain the virus have failed. Covid-19 is still growing here.

Yet, despite this, the town – where pubs eventually reopened on 3 October – will not face the severest local restrictions as part of the government’s new three tier approach to dealing with the virus.

After a now well-documented pushback from leaders in Greater Manchester, Boris Johnson announced the entire conurbation, including hard-hit Bolton, would be placed in tier two, meaning the town’s 269 pubs and restaurants will be allowed to keep trading. For now, at least.

The reason for this now appears to be two-fold - and may have implications for what now happens across the entire country as cases once again tick up everywhere.

Firstly, the council - and, more widely, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority - was able to convince the government that infection rates here are rising not because of nights out but through households. As one Public Health England report suggested in September, the reason case numbers continued to rise here through the summer is because they never really went down during lockdown. Cases continued to surge through multi-generational homes.

Secondly, the local authority - and again GMCA - also argued the economic devastation caused by a third lockdown could cripple huge swathes of the town and lead to mass unemployment.

“I’m in a WhatsApp group with a lot of cafes and bars in my ward, and that is the overriding feeling being expressed there,” says Nadim. “Looking at tier three, they were worried they wouldn’t survive another shut down. They have literally only just reopened after being closed through September and to be shut down immediately again? People have put their whole lives into some of these businesses and they feared having nothing to come back to. It was palpable…

“That is a case we have been making.”

That would not, to be clear, just have impacted on the night time economy here.

In a town where deprivation is so widespread that some 36.8 per cent of children live in households considered to be in poverty, just one sector being shut down for a sustained period could have huge knock on effects, reckons Nadim.

“In a town like Bolton, we have to be so careful with these decisions,” he says. ”Economically, small changes have big effects."

The council went along with the first shut down in a bid to reduce infection rates in one short sharp blast. This time, it argued against them believing the economic devastation had the potential to make such a cure worse than the illness.

For Richard Hibbert, one of those restaurateurs, the resulting last few days of uncertainty have been among the hardest of his life, he says.

His two establishments – both called Retreat – lost some £200,000 in sales over the four week September shut down. To go through that again could finish him off.

Crucially, he point out, while the government says it will pay two-thirds of wages for people left temporarily out of work during shut downs, it has made no real offer to support those closed businesses themselves. “What we’ll end up with,” the 41-year-old suggests, “is people not having jobs to go back to because pubs and restaurants will fold. They cannot survive paying rents and bills without any income."

His relief at being allowed to open comes tempered with anger at being put through that uncertainty in the first place,

Ever since Thursday – when plans for possible northern lockdowns were leaked to a London-based newspaper – he has felt the future has been in question.

“You try and listen to the news, and what councillors and MPs are saying but even they don’t know, they’re just offering snippets in the dark,” he says. “This is huge and effects millions of people and thousands of businesses. So how can there be rumours starting one week and then the government doesn’t come forward with answers until the next Monday. It’s wrong.”

Hospitality businesses here, he adds, have been shown no evidence to suggest they are behind rising infection rates.

“I can see how some pubs would be because you see them repeatedly not following the rules, not ensuring social distancing,” he says. But shutting everyone punishes the industry, not the offenders.”

It is a point similarly made by Luke Convey, owner of the town’s Northern Moneky pub and brewery.

So convinced was he that Bolton would face the same tier three restrictions as the Liverpool city region that he spent Monday morning pitching take-out ale sales to local shops. “Infection rates are double what they were when we shut down in September so I couldn’t see anyway we’d be allowed to stay open,” he says.

He’s glad they will still be staying open but points out that every time new rules are made, the harder it becomes to survive – even when open. “You talk to other pubs owners trying to follow the guidelines and they’re at their wit’s end,” he says. “I think the worst thing is just feeling that there’ll be more guidelines coming anytime soon."

Is he himself at his wit’s end?

A long pause. “The situation we’re in as a country,” he says. “I think you need to accept it’s difficult and things will change and try and get on with it.”

For now, indeed, the over-riding sense is of a town – an entire region, perhaps; a country maybe – that has avoided the worst, but perhaps only for now.

It is something Nick Page, leader of the Labour group on the council, fears may be true if action is not taken.

“The debate now needs to move onto making sure these restrictions work, as it is in nobody's interest to keep going back and forth like this,” he said in a statement.

"Bolton needs to be given powers to immediately close all non-compliant businesses, and we need to be allowed to run our track, trace and isolate system for ourselves, as its been shown time and time again, that local authorities are able to deliver these systems in a more efficient and much more localised approach."

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