Saturday, 23 January 2021

At least we’re still in tier 2 (for now)

At least we’re still in tier 2 (for now)

HENLEY and South Oxfordshire escaped being moved into the new tier 4 as the coronavirus restrictions were tightened.

The district remains in tier 2, meaning most shops and other businesses have been able to stay open this week for people still doing their Christmas shopping.

The exceptions included the Little Angel pub in Remenham Lane and Leander Club as they are in neighbouring Berkshire, which was among the areas across the South-East placed in the highest tier.

Even so, the planned relaxation of the rules have been cut to just Christmas Day and people are advised not to travel into a tier 4 area, except for those who have to travel to work or for education.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the changes for England at a Downing Street briefing after scientists said a new coronavirus variant was spreading more rapidly. The rules will be reviewed again next week and there is a strong likelihood that Oxfordshire will be moved into tier 4 as well.

Sue Cooper, leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, said it was the right decision to keep the area in tier 2 but warned residents to be careful.

“It’s about people being aware — if you want to meet people, do it outdoors,” she said.

“All the council leaders in Oxfordshire look at the coronavirus figures once a week and they are increasing and, worryingly, the number of people in hospital is going up.” Henley MP John Howell said he was relieved that South Oxfordshire was still in tier 2.

He said: “Quite frankly, it’s largely due to the pressure that’s been put on by myself and Conservative colleagues to ensure the system takes account of mental health issues, which are increasing all the time, and the effect that restrictions are having on business.

“I’ve had conversations with a number of people who run hospitality businesses and say the situation is absolutely killing them. We’ll see large numbers of well-known names disappear if we’re not careful.

“Although most businesses are happy not to be in tier 4, a minority feel it would give them a bit more certainty because of the way they operate. However, this has to be set against the effect it would have on the general population.

“The fact that a new variant of the virus has appeared isn’t surprising but it has had a big effect on neighbouring counties such as Berkshire or Buckinghamshire, which have been put into the higher tier. From the very outset, I’ve been pointing out that if a neighbouring area goes into a higher tier, people will come across the border and start using hospitality businesses which could spread the virus.

“The vital thing remains that we do our best to drive the transmission rate down, which will be a hard job but one I’m absolutely committed to so that we regain our freedom as soon as possible.

“There has to be a big push to ensure we follow the rules. I look forward to seeing the tier system abolished when it’s safe to do so.”

Henley town and community manager Helen Barnett said: “The retailers and hospitality venues are breathing a huge sigh of relief to be in tier 2 with so many of our neighbours being in tier 4.

“It’s a challenging time for everyone. We are trying to be as safe as we can throughout and the retailers themselves have their own rules and regulations for customers to follow.

I’m just relieved for the retailers that they can still trade until Christmas.

“We hope that people who live in tier 4 stay in tier 4. It’s very emotive but we want to keep our residents and shopkeepers safe.”

Henley Mayor Ken Arlett said: “We are fairly fortunate to remain in tier 2. The people of Henley have responded to what the Government has asked for and always try to follow the rules from what I’ve seen.

“As long as we stick to what we’re told to do we’ll be fine. No one has ever been in this situation before so who knows what will happen? We can only do our best.”

He added that the start of the vaccination programme last week would give people more confidence.

A total of 975 people aged over 80, all chosen because they are in good health, received their initial dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 jab at the Hart and Bell surgeries in Henley on Wednesday and Thursday last week. They will return in early January for a follow-up injection.

The recipients included media mogul Rupert Murdoch, 89, who owns a property in Binfield Heath.

Over-80s in other parts of South Oxfordshire should get their first jab within the next few weeks. It is not yet known when the vaccination will be rolled out to younger age groups.

The surgeries say the first wave went well and thanked staff for organising the session at just 10 days’ notice.

They were among the first in the country to take part in the pilot because they have a high number of elderly patients.

Ansaf Azhar, Oxfordshire County Council’s director for public health, said that residents should remain cautious despite the county remaining in tier 2.

He said: “We have seen that this virus thrives on human contact — the rules exist to stop it spreading. Tier 2 status reflects our current situation but cases have increased by almost 50 per cent in Oxfordshire.

“So we’re far from out of the woods and we could easily find ourselves in tier 3 in the New Year unless we take care now.

“Covid-19 will not be taking a break for Christmas.”

The rate of new infections in South Oxfordshire has almost doubled in a fortnight.

Laboratory tests have confirmed 199 cases in the past week compared with 150 the week earlier and 101 prior to that. This brings the total number of infections to 2,233 since the start of the pandemic.

The week’s infection rate is 225 per 100,000 compared with 603 in Reading and 477 in Wokingham.

In the past week there were 254 new cases in the Henley area, including surrounding villages, Caversham and parts of Wokingham borough, up from last week’s figure of 170.

Meanwhile, some of Henley’s popular annual events due to take place early next year have been cancelled or postponed.

The Henley Choir Festival, which was due to take place for the 12th year in January, is off.

Co-founder Elizabeth Hodgkin, who founded the event with David Butler, said: “We’ve cancelled it as we normally start rehearsing in December and we had to give people notice.

“It’s disappointing but it wouldn’t have been right. We can have small choirs of about five people but not 200 people in a church singing. It wouldn’t have worked and a lot of us are quite vulnerable anyway.

“We hope that if things improve after spring we can put something on — we will be back.”

The fourth Henley House and Garden Show, which was due to take place in March, has been put back a year.

Organiser Niki Schäfer, an interior designer, said: “The planning for the show starts nine months before and it would have meant getting sponsors in September and I didn’t feel that it was right.”

The 28th Henley Youth Festival, which was due to take place in March, had already been cancelled.

The Henley Choral Society may have to cancel the first of its three annual concerts in March.

The ninth annual Henley Design Day, which takes place at the Henley town hall in March, is also in doubt.

Organiser Sarah Miller said: “It’s very difficult as I can’t predict where we will be in March. It may be a case of making it a virtual event.”

The Woodcote 10km is unlikely to go ahead on January 10 as planned.

Jeremy Wilson, who organises the event for Pangbourne Rotary Club, said that if the tier 4 restrictions continued into the new year he felt there would be no alternative but to cancel the event.

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