How Lancaster and Morecambe lived through year since first national Covid lockdown

A year on from the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we look back at how the Lancaster district responded to the crisis - from lockdowns and testing centres, to mask wearing and vaccines...

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 4:49 pm
Wearing a face mask in shops became mandatory in July 2020. Photo by Tom Morbey

On March 13 2020, as the world’s attention focused on the growing crisis, Morecambe Bay Foodbank launched a major appeal for donations “in light of the coronavirus pandemic”.

The foodbank was already low on stock, and said that school and work closures “could create huge pressure in the coming weeks”.

At this point, there were no “confirmed” cases of Covid-19 in the Lancaster district, but local authorities were holding emergency meetings to decide what to do, and residents were reporting symptoms of the virus anecdotally.

People have shown their support for the NHS and key workers in many different ways.

On March 17, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust (UHMBT) placed the first restrictions on visitors to its hospitals after receiving national guidance.

Four days later, on March 21, UHMBT announced its first death of a patient who had tested positive for Covid-19

There was some panic buying in the supermarkets, and a huge sense of general unease within the community.

Things then moved very quickly, and on March 23, schools across the district began to close to most children.

NHS employee Hilary Birch was the first person to receive the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary in January.

Most workplaces shut down and staff were asked to work from home.

If you were a parent - you were asked to homeschool as well.

In the same week, Lancaster City Council and Morecambe Bay Foodbank launched a partnership to coordinate and deliver emergency food parcels to vulnerable people across the district.

Lancaster City Council leader Coun Dr Erica Lewis said at the time we “had a duty to protect our most vulnerable members” of society.

Our campaign was backed by MPs across the country, as well as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

What then followed was a series of increasing restrictions on day-to-day life, backed up by the Coronavirus Act 2020, which gave the government emergency powers to deal with the pandemic.

This included giving police greater powers to issue fines and dispersal orders.

April and May saw tight restrictions on people’s movements - alongside many examples of communities in the Lancaster, Morecambe and Carnforth areas pulling together to help out their most vulnerable.

The district’s first Covid-19 testing centre was set up in April, when a temporary site opened on St Leonardgate car park in Lancaster.

The Royal Lancaster Infirmary has been at the centre of the fight against Covid-19.

In early May, Lancaster and Fleetwood MP Cat Smith raised questions over Covid-19 testing and tracing, airport quarantines and PPE, as the UK reported Europe's highest death toll.

Lancaster district residents were told to stay local for exercise and not meet up with anyone from outside their households until the end of May, when restrictions on movement were lifted.

Despite this, political leaders in Morecambe Bay warned people off visiting the area from other parts of the country over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

In June, children returned to school - despite strong opposition from teaching unions and some parents - and restrictions gradually eased for the summer months.

Early June also saw large numbers of people descend on beauty spots across the district, prompting Lancaster City Council to warn people to take their rubbish home.

Many areas experienced huge piles of rubbish being left behind by visitors.

Sue Hubbard from Lancaster was among the first patients to be vaccinated at the new mass vaccination centre at Lancaster Town Hall in January.

On July 4, pubs were allowed to re-open alongside the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme and a “Test and Trace system”.

A few weeks later, on July 24, it became mandatory for people to wear a face covering in shops in the Lancaster district and across England.

At the time, a Downing Street spokesman said that "there is growing evidence that wearing a face covering in an enclosed space helps protect individuals and those around them from coronavirus".

Many argued that the ruling came much too late in the crisis.

In September 2020, Lancaster City Council's Salt Ayre community support hub response to the Covid-19 pandemic was praised in a national report for its 'strong leadership, creative practice and partnership working'.

New virus test centres opened in October, at Lancaster’s Nelson Street car park and a drive-through site at Lancaster University.The government introduced a Tier system across the country in September and October, based on Covid-19 figures in each county or region.

Lancashire was initially in Tier 2 (high alert), and then Tier 3 (very high) on October 17.

Pubs and restaurants were forced to close across the Lancaster district, due to higher than average infection numbers, although the hospitality industry said this wasn’t down to the pub and restaurant trade.

Following this, different Tier systems were introduced and Lancashire went into Tier 4 (the highest) in early November.

Local politicians argued during a government review later that month that the district should be treated separately from the rest of the county due to its lower than national average rates, but the plea was turned down.

There was another four-week lockdown in November, and Lancaster went back into Tier 4 until Christmas when - despite a suggestion from Boris Johnson that families would be able to get together for several days over the holidays - the festivities were cut short to just one day, and a full lockdown returned on January 6 2021.

With testing centres operating successfully, the vaccination roll-out began in earnest in the Lancaster district in December.

UHMBT became an integral part of the biggest vaccination programme in the history of the NHS, and registered nurse Jane Brown described her experience of being the first member of staff at the trust to receive the PfizerBioNTech Covid-19 vaccine as a ‘lovely early Christmas present’ and ‘an honour’.

A second drive-through Covid-19 testing facility opened in January at Caton Road Park & Ride, followed by a rapid testing centre at Morecambe Town Hall in March to help those continuing to travel to work.

In early January, UHMBT became one of the first trusts across the country to start vaccinating using the new Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, with NHS employee Hilary Birch being the first person to receive it at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

“I can’t believe I’m the first one at our trust to have had it – I'm very fortunate!” she said.

The NHS was the first health service in the world to deliver the new jab in the next stage of the phased vaccine programme.

The vaccination roll-out continued with centres opening at Morecambe FC’s Mazuma Arena and later at Morecambe Cricket Club.

And then, in late January, the basement at Lancaster Town Hall was transformed to vaccinate up to 1,000 Lancastrians a day when it became one of the county’s mass vaccination centres.

A patient is vaccinated at the town hall every five minutes with the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine and, with the unit open 11 hours a day, seven days a week, at full capacity can vaccinate around 1,000 people a day.

The mass hub’s opening coincided with the Visitor and Guardian joining forces with our sister titles across the country to launch ‘A Shot In The Arm’, a campaign which urged the Prime Minister and Health Secretary to utilise the army of health professionals in the country’s network of 11,000 pharmacies who already successfully help to administer the flu vaccination programme every year.

The campaign went on to be backed by MPs across the country, as well as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

On February 22, the government announced its roadmap out of lockdown, with schools returning on March 8, and a removal of travel restrictions and social contact outdoors (two households or up to six people) on March 29.

This will be the first time Lancaster district residents have been able to socialise with people from other households - with the exception of Christmas Day - in more than five months.

Following this, non-essential shops, libraries, pub beer gardens, self contained accommodation, outdoor attractions and others are expected to be open from April 12.

By May 17, indoor hospitality could resume, along with other accommodation such as hotels, organised indoor sport, a maximum of 30 people gathering outdoors - including private gardens - and two households indoors.

All restrictions on social contact could be lifted by June 21.

Residents aged 50 and over are currently in the process of being invited for their vaccinations - as well as those having their second jab - amid fears of delays for those aged under 50 after it was announced last week that April was expected to see a reduction in the UK's Covid vaccine supply, partly due to a delay in a delivery from India of five million Oxford AstraZeneca doses.

However, the Government has said it anticipated difficulty with supplies, and believes the current target of getting all adults vaccinated with their first dose by the end of July 2021 should still be met.

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