Millions of people were told this morning they will be plunged into tighter lockdown restrictions from this weekend – but the rules have not changed in Hertfordshire, yet.

The government announced that the whole of London and most of Essex will move into a Tier 2 lockdown from the early hours of Saturday.

This means people living in these areas cannot socialise with people they do not live with, in indoor settings like homes, pubs, and restaurants, unless they are part of a support bubble.

Essex was placed into Tier 2 following a request by Essex County Council,in a move to slow down the current rates of infection across the county.

It's understood an average county-wide rate of 100 cases per 100,000 population is a threshold which sees areas pushed into stricter measures.

But government figures show the latest weekly rate for coronavirus cases in the seven days to October 10 in Essex’s districts are all below 100 cases per 100,000 – the highest being Tendring at 90.1

The same figures show five of Hertfordshire’s ten districts had a higher weekly rate than Tendring – including Watford, Three Rivers, and Hertsmere which all have rates of over 100.

So why haven’t restrictions been tightened in Hertfordshire?

The main reason is, while cases are increasing in the county, the figures for Hertfordshire have been skewed due to a testing error.

For the last couple of weeks or so, Hertfordshire has, on paper, seen a dramatic rise in cases – but many of them have not actually been in the county.

The director of public health in Hertfordshire, Jim McManus, has previously confirmed that Hertfordshire is among those hit by a nationwide testing error involving university students.

He said: “There is a nationwide issue with some students’ positive coronavirus tests being attributed to their permanent home address (in Hertfordshire) rather than their term-time address, and this is undoubtedly having an impact on the reported figures for Hertfordshire.

“We are still analysing the data and working closely with Public Health England to understand the exact effect on our local figures.

“It is important to remember that even excluding students, the number of cases is continuing to rise across all age groups and areas of Hertfordshire and it’s important that we all play our part to control the spread of coronavirus.”

Watford Observer:

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At a council meeting today, Mr McManus suggested to councillors that the testing issue was the result of the NHS Digital 'enrichment process', which was over-riding the addresses that had been supplied by students.

He said: "There is a thing called the NHS Digital enrichment process, where laboratory data is run through to find missing contact details.

"Now that is entirely sensible – it happens at a national level – it’s not us that do it, it’s NHS test and trace.

"But it appears that national database is over-riding addresses that may have been provided by the individual at the test centre.

"So if a Hertfordshire resident went to Newcastle University  – even if they provided their Newcastle Uni address at the time of the test it may be over-ridden if their Hertfordshire address is on the NHS ‘spine’."

Watford Observer:

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In the week ending October 1, analysis of NHS data suggests 242 cases out of 714 in Hertfordshire were actually students living elsewhere.

Of these 242 cases, this includes 51 in St Albans, 50 in Hertsmere, 30 in Dacorum, 19 in Three Rivers, and 7 in Watford.

Mr McManus indicated he doesn't know if the same has happened since October 1, where government figures show cases have escalated even more in Hertfordshire. 

Three Rivers District Council leader Sarah Nelmes told us she was aware that around a third of cases in her district between September 27 and October 3 were actually students elsewhere in England, while Watford mayor Peter Taylor and Hertsmere Borough Council leader Morris Bright have said previously it is their understanding rates in their areas have been inflated.

And St Albans District Council also said it was seeing cases in St Albans which were actually ‘hundreds of miles away’.

Therefore, the rate of cases in all of these areas is likely – but unconfirmed - to be closer to 60 or 70 cases per 100,000 – which is not high enough in the government or county council’s view to go into Tier 2.

Hertfordshire is not the only place to be affected by this glitch.

Munira Wilson, MP for Twickenham in London, said around a quarter of cases in Richmond-upon-Thames has been affected by university student cases.

Essex County Council has admitted it too has experienced similar issues – but said its figures haven’t been “skewed” because coronavirus cases are being reported in all age groups in the county and said it is seeing a rise in hospital admissions for people with Covid-19.

A spokesperson for Hertfordshire County Council said today: “The government has placed Hertfordshire in Tier 1 – the medium alert level – and we believe that this accurately reflects the current position in the county.

“We are constantly monitoring coronavirus cases in Hertfordshire and we will, of course, speak to the government if the local situation changes.”

Watford Observer:

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But this doesn't mean the virus is not spreading locally.

The county council has warned there is “no room for complacency” and issued a statement earlier this week urging residents to “act now” after a “significant rise” in cases in the previous ten days.

In October, there have been nine deaths of patients at West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust who tested positive for Covid-19 - which is the highest in the east of England. 

Mr McManus said today there were currently 23 Covid-19 patients in one unnamed Hertfordshire hospital  – with two needing ventilator support.

In a joint statement released on Monday night, Mr McManus and county council leader David Williams said: “We are properly prepared, and have a detailed plan in place to deal with each scenario. But now is the time to redouble our efforts to keep the virus at bay.

“We understand that many of our residents have been playing their part by following the government guidelines, particularly on face-coverings, social-distancing, the ‘rule of six’, and self-isolation where necessary.

“Yet, we are appealing to everyone to be even more disciplined to help us control the spread of the virus. Unless we act now, it is likely that the rate of infection will continue to rise - and that could mean further restrictions.

“We still have a limited window of opportunity to stay in control of the spread of the virus in Hertfordshire, rather than having stricter measures implemented.

“We urge all of our residents to help us make sure that is the case by following the guidance. If you keep playing your part, we can all stay safe in Hertfordshire together.”