I wish I was writing about something other than Coronavirus, which I have touched on to some degree in each of my last few columns. However, these are exceptional times with one supremely dominant issue in our daily lives and there is no avoiding the hard reality that we are clearly facing a second wave of infection, with all that could yet entail. I can imagine the mood of the moment for many readers is: “here we go again”.
First and foremost, we must avoid alarmism. The tendency for our national conversation to home in on garish graphs and spine-chilling statistics has not helped but here in South Suffolk we continue to have a very low level of infection, albeit one that is clearly rising, and at a distinctly sharper rate than just two weeks ago when we literally had the lowest rate in the country (2 per 100,000 for the Babergh District). Hence, with the pandemic spreading at a rate of knots the Prime Minister took the decision to introduce the three tier system, to signify the seriousness of lockdown measures in given areas, intended in turn to respond proportionately in different localities to the wide variation in rates of infection.
The two districts covered by this constituency – Babergh and West Suffolk – are both in the ‘medium tier’. You can find full details at www.gov.uk/coronavirus but most significantly this means that hospitality venues are open, albeit with a ten o’clock curfew. Crucially, unlike in ‘very high’ areas you can still mix socially inside and outside, subject to the ‘rule of six’.
I happen to feel the best way ahead is to brace ourselves for further restrictions. They may or may not come, but that way we can prepare mentally for what seems an inevitable increase in the days ahead in both hospitalisations and the pandemic’s rate of spread. Of course, we know that if we all follow the guidance on social distancing, hand-washing and appropriate use of masks the chance of such an outcome reduces, or at the very least the edge is taken off the worst impacts.
I appreciate that this is once again a very difficult time for local businesses, with huge uncertainty back, and another round of changes to the way they operate - particularly for the hospitality sector. It was such a positive feeling back in August when confidence appeared to be returning, with our local pubs busy again.
On the plus side, the Chancellor has announced a new set of interventions, including further wage support for staff at businesses forced to shut. Crucially for company cash flow we have provided much longer terms to repay the Bounce Back Loans and Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans that have supported so many firms.
We have also had some excellent news locally. The vacant Philips Avent plant in Glemsford has been purchased by a Malaysian cocoa manufacturer, creating jobs locally and underlining that this remains a great place to invest and start a business. The Quay Theatre, Sudbury will receive a grant of £120k to help it survive this time of profound challenge to all arts’ venues. St Peter’s Church on Market Hill has been awarded £1.67m grant from the National Lottery.
I appreciate that these are venues which we are unlikely to fully enjoy again until some months from now, but a time will come when we are restoring rather than removing freedoms. And whatever happens, with this terrible virus mercifully sparing our youngest, we will do everything possible to keep schools and colleges open even with tougher restrictions. Let’s hope for the best but prepare for the worst.