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Keir Starmer has urged the prime minister to impose a two- to three-week national “circuit breaker” lockdown across England to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed, in a dramatic escalation of his criticism of the government’s approach.
Papers published by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) late on Monday revealed that the government’s scientific advisers called for a fortnight-long lockdown as long ago as 21 September, or risk a “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”.
Instead, amid fears over the economy, Boris Johnson opted for a limited package of measures including a 10pm closing time for pubs and restaurants, encouragement to work from home and stricter curbs in the hardest-hit areas.
With 143 coronavirus deaths confirmed in the UK on Monday – the highest toll since early June – and more than 17,000 cases, the prime minister is under growing pressure to impose stricter measures.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Starmer said the government had “lost control of the virus”, and it was time to take more drastic action.
“There is no longer time to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt. The government’s plan simply isn’t working. Another course is needed. That is why I am calling for a two- to three-week circuit break in England – in line with Sage’s recommendation. A temporary set of clear and effective restrictions designed to get R back below 1. And to reverse the trend of infections and hospitalisations.”
He suggested the shutdown, one week of which would coincide with schools’ planned half-term break later this month, could be used to upgrade the UK’s beleaguered test-and-trace system. The Sage minutes said test and trace was having only a “marginal” impact on the spread of the disease.
Starmer suggested schools could remain open, but many other businesses would close. “It would mean only essential work and travel. That everyone who can work from home should do so. Non-essential offices should be closed. Household mixing should be restricted to one household except for those who’ve formed support ‘bubbles’. And all pubs, bars and restaurants would be closed for two to three weeks – but compensated so that no business loses out because of the sacrifices we all need to make. It should also mean the UK Parliament moves to remote working,” he said.
Starmer called on the prime minister to face down lockdown sceptics in his party, and said Labour would lend him the votes he would need to get the measure agreed by the House of Commons.
“You know that the science backs this approach. You know that the restrictions you’re introducing won’t be enough … So act now. Break the cycle. If you do you will have the votes in the House of Commons. I can assure you of that. You don’t need to balance the needs of your party against the national interest.
Sage’s advice was published on Monday after the prime minister had made clear he had rejected a circuit breaker in favour of a three-tier system of restrictions.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, believed it would be helpful to publish the advice as soon as possible, the Guardian understands.
Starmer’s call to heed Sage’s recommendation for a short-term lockdown was backed by metro mayors in northern England – provided it came with more financial support than is currently on the table. The mayors of Greater Manchester, the Sheffield city region and North of Tyne represent a combined 5.5 million people.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said he would prefer a nationwide circuit breaker over tier 3 (“very high risk”) measures because it “would be much more effective, come with proper financial support and allow the reset of test and trace”. “A winter in tier 3 would kill us,” he said. “We are not there yet.”
Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central and mayor for the Sheffield city region, said he could support a circuit breaker “provided it comes with an accompanying economic support package”.
He admitted that local directors of public health in South Yorkshire were already agitating for tougher measures. “If you are a director of public health (DPH) your primary concern is for the health of the public … Our DPHs are no different from the chief medical officer: their primary focus is reducing the spread of this infection. That has to be set against the fact that from our point of view, public health is interwoven with economic health, particularly in places like South Yorkshire.”
Jamie Driscoll, the mayor of the North of Tyne, said he would be prepared to support a circuit breaker providing there was evidence to show it would work and if it came with additional Treasury funds. “If the evidence is there that it’s going to work and there’s [financial] support then yes, and if the evidence is not there and there isn’t the support then no,” he said.
“We’ve got to get on top of the virus. It’s got to be evidence-based. If the evidence says a further lockdown’s going to work then it needs to come with support.”
The senior Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the powerful liaison committee of MPs, suggested a “short, sharp shock” may be necessary.
The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, has urged Johnson to call a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee to discuss the possibility of a short UK-wide lockdown. In a letter to the prime minister, he said: “We should discuss collectively what circuit breaker options might best serve to bring the virus – and the R number – under control across the UK.”
Some health experts in the north-west continue to argue for tougher restrictions beyond the Liverpool city region which is in tier 3. One director of public health in an area put into tier 2 said she would prefer a national circuit breaker, pointing out they had been subject to restrictions for several months yet infections had soared. “We are not a big enough country for local lockdowns to work and the local nature of these restrictions exacerbates north-south inequalities,” she said.
Johnson’s spokesman said that before rejecting much of the Sage advice in September, the prime minister and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, sought “a wide variety of scientific opinion, alongside extensive engagement with scientific and medical advisers, and the chief economist”.
Asked why the “circuit breaker” idea was not acted on, the spokesman said the documents also carried advice about seeking a broader perspective. “They explicitly point out that policymakers will need to consider analysis of economic impact and the associated harms, alongside their epidemiological assessment, and that’s exactly what the prime minister, the chancellor and colleagues did,” he said.
Asked if this meant Johnson had lost confidence in Sage, the spokesman said the committee “continues to provide the prime minister with advice”.
Source: The Guardian
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