Harrogate’s great festive effort in fight against Covid - but will it be enough to save our businesses as clampdown looms?

Harrogate has 'made the most' of its festive 'Tier 2' status, but there are fears a January clampdown could once again bring the region to a halt.

By Matt Reeder
Monday, 28th December 2020, 3:12 pm
Updated Monday, 28th December 2020, 3:16 pm

While not ideal, being in the 'High' set of restrictions has at least allowed for a little bit of optimism to creep back into the region, with reports from business leaders suggesting higher footfall and better levels of spending in the run-up to the all-important Christmas week.

Thanks to the relatively low Covid case numbers in North Yorkshire and Harrogate in particular, hospitality and retail businesses have been able to trade - within their strict parameters - over the festive season unlike vast areas of the nation which have been placed in the higher 'Tier 3' or 'Tier 4' categories.

Could Harrogate soon face the restrictions of a third 'lockdown', with 'Tier 4' restrictions spread across the whole country?

But with senior Government ministers refusing to rule out the idea of placing the whole country into the 'Tier 4' bracket as we head into the new year, there are concerns that Harrogate's relatively low case-rate may be ignored for a more nation-wide approach.

The district currently has a Covid case rate of 94 per 100,000, with 230 deaths recorded to December 11 and 4,127 cases recorded to December 24. There were 151 cases reported in the week from December 14 to December 20.

Comparing our figures with the national average of 238 per 100,000 gives an idea on where we stand. London currently has a case rate of 752 per 100,000, Dover is at 730 per 100,000 and Southend-on-Sea at a staggering 1,036 per 100,000.

Michael Gove MP would not comment on the prospect of what would effectively be a third national lockdown in January as he appeared on BBC Breakfast on Monday. He said 'scientific evidence' would be used in making any decision, with the Joint Biosecurity Centre due to make recommendations to ministers before the next review on December 30.

Simon Cotton believes Harrogate businesses have done their absolute best in difficult conditions. But will it be enough?

While Harrogate Hospital has, so far, seemingly escaped the worst of the conditions, the NHS has reported a number of crisis-points across the country, and the Government has been warned that the situation will only get worse as we enter into the new year.

A tranche of towns and cities were placed into the highest 'Tier 4' restrictions on Christmas Day night, with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warning that the R rate could surge above 1 in January as the new mutant variant of Covid-19 continues to spread.

There have been reports that the whole country could be placed into 'Tier 4' restrictions for the whole of the opening month of 2021 in the hope that cases can be controlled while the vaccines are rolled out to the most vulnerable within our communities.

It is hoped that some semblance of normality could return to our lives in February, provided the vaccine works and the case numbers start to fall.

'Tier 4' measures ban all socialising except with one other household outdoors, with non-essential shops shut and people told to stay at home. It has been likened to the second lockdown which the country entered in November, with schools remaining open.

Simon Cotton, managing director of the HRH Group which runs the likes of The Yorkshire Hotel, the White Hart Hotel and the Fat Badger pub, is grateful that Harrogate businesses were given the chance to operate within the relatively relaxed 'Tier 2' in the build-up to the festive season, and believes the town made the most of its opportunity.

Mr Cotton said: “I think Harrogate has certainly benefited from being in Tier 2 in the run up to Christmas.

“While it hasn’t come without its own set of problems in managing and administering it all, the alternative of being in a Tier 3, or worse, a new Tier 4 area is unimaginable at this crucial time of year for many businesses.

“I witnessed first hand a busy buzz about the town centre over the weekend before Christmas so I hope the shops have seen that increased footfall turn into much-needed sales.

“It was great to see many shops managing numbers and making shoppers queue outside to get in to aid social distancing so they must be applauded for managing this so well.”

In a year which has impacted on everyone and every type of business, one sector has, perhaps, suffered a heavier financial blow than any other - hospitality.

Mr Cotton said: “In terms of Harrogate’s hospitality sector, the weekend before Christmas was probably the busiest for a long long time, despite the restrictions.

“Friday night (December 18) was by far the busier with many trying to get out for that last Friday before Christmas.

“North Yorkshire Police have to be commended as they were a visible presence and doing the rounds around licenced premises reminding operators of the rules, making sure it did not turn into a ‘mad Friday’.

“All of this was done in a supportive way by everyone.

“Ultimately trade was down on a normal final Christmas weekend but the fact everyone has to eat a ‘substantial meal’ did make up for some of the loss of the drinkers.”

Mr Cotton said he was hoping for a 'Tier 2' New Year or even a 'Tier 1' if infection rates would allow. But, like many now, he fears another lockdown is on its way as national numbers continue to spiral.

"It is starting to feel inevitable that a third lockdown is on the cards and whilst hugely frustrating for everyone, especially in Harrogate where we feel the hard work that businesses have put in and the public have made, have shown through in the low Covid cases we have here, I guess we have to respect the national position and also accept that it’s only a matter of time before we see numbers rising on a local level, if only due to those travelling into our 'Tier 2' area from elsewhere, despite the rules and guidelines not to," he said.

"What I would personally like to see now is the Government taking decisive and final action to give people hope that we are genuinely looking at the beginning of the end of this horrible situation we’ve been living with for nearly a year now. One of the biggest problems facing business owners and operators is the ever changing rules and regulations; this stop start situation is costing many their livelihoods and they don’t know what to do next for the best.

"Some worry about buying stock to be able to open and worry that it’ll then get wasted if further restrictions are applied and I have friends in the industry that have therefore decided it’s best to not even open, even when they’ve been allowed.

"If we are to need a further lockdown, it should be one final one with commitment to reopening, probably in February, with a view to staying open and starting to rebuild our businesses ready for the spring and hopefully a busy summer season. The start of 2021 is a time for giving hope and making plans, not the time for more uncertainty and limping from one crisis to another."