COVID-19: A tale of two towns as Lancaster and Blackburn prepare for Christmas
At the Lancaster Brewery the Christmas lights may be on, but the much-loved markets are not.
Usually at this time of year it’s packed with thousands of people, mulled wine flowing, sausages sizzling but instead it’s deserted.
This city has the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in Lancashire, a lot lower than areas around it, but even after the national lockdown is set to be lifted, there’s no sign of salvaging what remains of the festive trading.
England’s strengthened tier system could cripple this city. It’s because only 30 miles south, still in the county, coronavirus has Blackburn firmly in its grip.
This town is battling with some of the highest COVID rates in the country and health officials warn the lifting of lockdown measures on the 2 December could be detrimental.
Lancaster currently sits at a ‘very low’ risk level, but with its neighbours struggling to keep on top with their cases, the new tier system may mean it too will have to suffer from tough measures.
Businesses here are already clinging on for survival, they just hope they’ll be rewarded with a looser lockdown next week.
Chris Duffy organises the Christmas markets here, he said he was “absolutely gutted” when he had to cancel this year’s spectacle.
“It’s a tough one to swallow really, if we’re in the top tier it adds more complications to what we can provide,” he said.
“We just want that Christmas atmosphere; we want that real magical time to be accessible to us all.
“The restrictions are restrictions, and that’s tough, but we have to follow suit. It’s just when we’ve worked so hard to make sure people are safe in Lancaster, people have been abiding by the rules and missing out on certain things we’d usually do. To be lumped in with other places that aren’t abiding by the rules, that’s really tough for us.”
The mood is similar among other people who live in Lancaster. They think it would be unfair if they have to live under tougher restrictions because of the high rates of infection in other towns.
Businesses in Blackburn though are also on their knees, they may be desperate for the lockdown restrictions to end but without tougher tier restrictions throughout December it may be a while before this town is out of the woods.
Blackburn’s public health director, Dominic Harrison, told Sky News: “Blackburn has a bigger challenge than the national average and has been working hard.
“Recently we’ve been more successful in getting those rates down during the lockdown, but we’re still struggling.
“Personally, the tier rules should be universal but the advice on safety and reducing the risks in those circumstances should be targeted in different ways in different areas.
“I think it would be unfair to have one rule for some and another rule for others,” he added.
100 years ago, the last major pandemic – the Spanish flu – ended.
Phillip Ainsworth’s great-grandfather lived and worked through it as a jeweller. For 150 years his family’s business has been providing jewellery to people across Lancashire.
But during this pandemic the business is struggling and with tight measures from the tier system around the corner, Phillip says it could be harmful.
“If we remain shut over the December period it will be detrimental to our business,” he said. “December for jewellers is the most important month of the year. We simply just wouldn’t be able to survive.
“Right now we’re spending a lot of time on weekends getting COVID secure and ready for the 2nd of December when the national lockdown ends, if it’s taken away from us it would be tragic.”
Phillip said he agrees that Blackburn will need tougher restrictions when the tiered measures come into force, but he believes his shop is safe enough to be open and to trade to the public.
“We’re hoping they’ll look at our business individually and say that we can open,” he said. “We pride ourselves on customer service with people physically coming into the shop, you can’t do that on the internet so we need people to come back in here.”
This really is a tale of two towns and it lays bare the difficult decisions faced by the PM as he tries to devise a route out of this national lockdown. They may only be a matter of miles apart, but Lancaster longs for lifting, while Blackburn’s battle continues.