IF September was the month a second coronavirus wave began to tighten its grip on Cheshire, then October was the month in which the county started to feel its effects.

In the 31 days which make up the tenth month, Cheshire East and Cheshire West saw new restrictions imposed, pleas for help sent, pleas for help ignored, and worrying details about the future revealed.

What happened in October?

The most obvious event was the announcement from Boris Johnson on Monday, October 12, that both boroughs were to move into new tier 2 restrictions, placing a ban on household mixing indoors.

The move was pre-empted by the government adding both councils to the ‘area of concern’ list at the start of the month, after infection rates had risen to 54.1 cases per 100,000 people in CEC, and 64.4 in CWAC.

However, by the time tier 2 measures came into effect, the rate had already risen to 164 per 100,000 in Cheshire East, and 195.3 in Cheshire West.

Currently, CEC’s infection rate is 217.9 and CWAC’s is 222.4 — according to Public Health England data released on Wednesday, October 28.

To help ease the burden of the measures, leaders from three Cheshire authorities — CEC, CWAC, and Warrington Borough Council — wrote to the government asking for a ‘package of support’ worth £44.35 million before tier 2 was announced.

By the time the government called up the region’s MPs and council officials to reveal tier 2 measures, local authorities were still awaiting a reply.

The process left CWAC leader Cllr Louise Gittins ‘frustrated’.

She told the Guardian: “I was so frustrated, so I said [at the meeting] we have waited for some meaningful discussions with the government and it is disappointing to find out half an hour ago we were going to have a meeting of 20 minutes of a big group to discuss some really important issues impacting our communities.”

In the days following the meeting, Northwich MP Mike Amesbury appealed for the government to extend discussions with Cheshire’s leaders in Parliament.

Whilst it’s unclear over whether or not those discussions have begun, CWAC councillors opted to down party banners last week at their full council meeting to force the issue.

A cross-party motion was passed which ensures the council will lobby the government for that support, and also endorsed the Local Government Association’s campaign for £10 billion extra funding for councils in this year’s financial settlement.

Additionally, it seeks to: “Develop and agree a ‘recovery and renewal plan’ for our borough based on the six themes from the council plan, [and] work collaboratively to bridge political divides and nurture partnerships beyond sub-regional and national borders (like the Mersey-Dee alliance), to secure a growth deal for our region that truly levels up the north and prepares us for post-Brexit Britain.”

Winsford Guardian:

What will happen next?

That motion is perhaps a hint of what’s to come — as more areas of the UK see their infection rates climb, and therefore move up the tier system, the government’s focus is slowly being drawn away from the north west.

Birmingham is the next major city being touted for tier 3 restrictions, with the City’s council leader Ian Ward calling for the government to ‘immediately’ impose a ‘circuit-breaker’ ahead of Christmas.

As Westminster’s gaze shifts, it leaves councils in a tight spot.

Leaders know that the government will not budge on the support given to areas after the Andy Burnham stand-off, and they also know that as cases rise across the country, their voices become more diluted as other leaders call for similar support.

It means, ultimately, they have to look inward — which is why CWAC announced this week that 180 jobs are at risk under new cost savings plans.

This has been driven by the fact that the local authority is facing a budget black hole of between £34 million and £43 million — depending on what national funding becomes available.

Cllr Carol Gahan, cabinet member for legal and finance, said: “We will have to make some very difficult decisions about significant savings and efficiencies to make sure we can continue to support those with the most complex needs and to deliver our residents’ priorities.”

“We will do everything we can to innovate and reduce the impact on residents and our staff, but the challenge is significant.”

At the time of writing, CEC has not yet unveiled its cost savings plans, but the most recent figures suggest it is staring down a £26 million funding shortfall.

The winter ahead

It can therefore be tempting to see the infection rates, the shortfalls, and how early the sun sets now the clocks have changed and quiver at the news.

There is still cause for hope, however.

At last week’s CWAC health and well-being board, officials confirmed their belief that the borough is in a strong position to turn the spike in cases around, having learned from the first wave in spring.

They are planning to meet ‘normal winter pressures’ on services, as well as intending to ensure there is ‘enough flexible capacity to meet additional needs in the community, schools and hospitals, particularly for more vulnerable residents’.

Additionally, Cllr Gittins said ‘hospitals have made available additional beds, making flexible use of others’ which is helping health chiefs to make ‘good progress in providing non-Covid services, with an emphasis on vascular and cancer treatment’.

With cautious optimism, leaders are again stressing the same message: hands, face, space.