A POLITICAL divide has opened over the Government's decision to block Oxfordshire from moving into tier 2 Covid restrictions.

Oxfordshire's director of public health made the request to move into tier 2 because the coronavirus is reportedly beginning to spread from younger people to the elderly and vulnerable, especially in rural areas of the county.

His request was backed by local council leaders of all political parties, including the Conservative leadership of Oxfordshire County Council, the Labour leadership of Oxford City Council, and the Lib Dem and Green-led districts.

READ AGAIN about the decision to block Oxfordshire from entering tier 2 here

But the move into tier 2 was not supported by the county's four Conservative MPs, who have been accused of 'politicised meddling' by opponents.

In a joint statement, Conservative MPs John Howell (Henley), David Johnston (Wantage), Robert Courts (Witney), and Victoria Prentis (Banbury), said: "Public health must be the priority but coronavirus rates in much of Oxfordshire, outside of the city of Oxford, remain low.

"We would be concerned about the prospect of individuals and businesses in wider Oxfordshire being placed under Tier 2 restrictions on the basis of a problem that appears centred on the student population in Oxford city."

They added that they could see a case for placing the city under higher restrictions, but not their rural areas of the county.

While Oxford's case rate is high, it actually fell earlier this week, and the case rate is rising elsewhere in the county.

The Government makes decisions about which areas are under which tier of restrictions based on advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

The Tory MPs said they had shared their views on further restrictions with the Government before a decision was made.

Oxford's Labour and Lib Dem MPs, Anneliese Dodds and Layla Moran, held different views to their Conservative colleagues.

Both said it was important to follow the advice given by the public health director Ansaf Azhar.

Oxford Mail:

Ansaf Azhar

Mr Azhar's account of why he applied for heightened restrictions gave a different picture of why the change was needed to the Tory MPs.

While they claimed the Covid infection rate among students in the city was the problem, he warned the uptick among the vulnerable and elderly in rural areas was actually the issue.

ALSO READ: What tier 1 to tier 2 move would mean for Oxfordshire

He said: “Across all areas of the county, we are starting to see a significant shift in the spread of the virus from people in their teens and 20s to older and more vulnerable age groups. This is a really concerning development. We know that, once the virus starts to spread to more vulnerable groups, then hospital cases will rise and deaths will inevitably follow."

He added: “We have seen what’s been happening across the north of England and how the virus has quickly taken hold across huge swathes of the community. Based on the current trajectory of the virus, we could well find ourselves in a similar position in just a few weeks’ time if we do not take collective action now.” 

Oxfordshire is currently under Tier 1 restrictions, currently the lowest level of controls.

Oxford Mail:

Rural West Oxfordshire. Picture: WODC

Under Tier 2, people would be prevented from visiting friends and family at their homes or from meeting other households at restaurants and cafes. The 'rule of six' applies outdoors, and restaurants and pubs have to close at 10pm.

Other council areas will enter into Tier 2 from this weekend, with the nearest to Oxford being Slough.

And the decision to stop Oxfordshire moving up into the next Tier could be reviewed as early as next week.

According to the latest coronavirus stats, there were 16 patients at Oxford University Hospitals with confirmed Covid, with one person on ventilation as of 8am on October 20.

ALSO READ: Latest daily Covid figures for Oxford and Oxfordshire

Following the Government's decision to block a move to Tier 2, there was disappointment from local council leaders.

Susan Brown, the Labour leader of Oxford City Council, said: "I am disappointed that a decision has been made in London to ignore the considered view of the Director of Public Health and the councils who are looking after people’s health and wellbeing on a daily basis."

Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council Ian Hudspeth stressed 'the escalating situation across the county' required the high alert level.

Oxford Mail:

Oxford. Picture: Oxfordshire County Council

And the Lib Dem leaders of Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire district councils, Emily Smith and Susan Cooper, were also disappointed by the delay.

They also put their names to a letter alongside council colleagues from their areas, condemning what they described as 'politicised meddling into public health decision making' by the Conservative MPs.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson was asked why Oxfordshire was not placed under tighter restrictions.

They said: “These decisions are made in close consultation with local leaders and public health experts, informed by the latest evidence from the JBC and NHS Test and Trace, PHE and the Chief Medical Officer for England. We constantly review the evidence and will take swift action where necessary.”