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Boris Johnson warned northern leaders that a failure to agree tougher coronavirus restrictions within days would be “unforgivable” as he faced doubt and frustration over a new system designed to prevent the “inexorable” spread of Covid-19.
The prime minister unveiled a three-tier system splitting England into medium risk (tier 1), high risk (tier 2), and very high risk (tier 3) areas. Under the new rules, nearly a third of the country – more than 17 million people – face localised curbs.
Liverpool city region was the only area categorised as high risk on Monday – with pubs forced to close and household mixing banned in almost all circumstances from Wednesday.
Greater Manchester and the north-east fought off attempts to close their hospitality sectors, insisting ministers had not provided scientific evidence and saying the measures were proving counterproductive.
But Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, warned that even the toughest curbs would probably not contain the spread of the virus in the worst-hit areas and said local authorities would need to add extra restrictions. “The base will not be sufficient. I think that’s very clearly the professional view,” he said.
Documents leaked to the Guardian last week said Sage scientists had advised the closure of all hospitality and leisure venues in tier 3, suggesting the measures have since been watered down. Whitty said there would need to be significant sacrifices in the coming months. “The idea we can do this without causing harm is an illusion,” he said.
More people are hospitalised with Covid-19 than when the country entered full lockdown on 23 March, Johnson said, while cases were up to levels last seen in early May. “These figures are flashing at us like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet, and we must act now,” he told a Downing Street press conference.
Northern leaders who resisted tier 3 cited a lack of scientific evidence for pub closures and said the measures risked being counterproductive. A number of MPs claimed they were left out of meetings about the new system or given just minutes’ notice.
But in a sign that Downing Street hopes to persuade swathes of the north to accept harsher measures, Johnson told MPs he was urging leaders to continue negotiating. “I believe not to act would be unforgivable, so I hope that rapid progress can be made in the coming days,” he said.
Johnson added: “If we can’t get agreement, then clearly it is the duty of national government to take the necessary action to protect the public and public health and we will.”
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “It’s mixing that spreads the disease and we don’t have evidence that hospitality is the main cause. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the closing of hospitality causes more mixing in terms of social gatherings. I know they haven’t got the evidence because we asked for it and they couldn’t produce it.”
Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, reacted with fury to blanket tier 2 restrictions in his region – banning households from mixing indoors but subjecting outdoor meetings to the rule of six – and suggested he was blindsided by the decision.
“This is not something regional leaders supported, nor what I believed would be happening following extensive conversations over recent days. The region was united, cross-party, in supporting the existing restrictions,” he said. “This is something the latest local epidemiology does not support, and I am disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with this despite the united view of local leaders.”
Johnson said he wanted to “simplify and standardise” rules while avoiding a new national lockdown. In the Liverpool city region, which is in tier 3, pubs and bars must close unless they are food-based and only serve alcohol with meals. Restaurants can stay open. The region has also agreed to close gyms, leisure centres, casinos, betting shops and adult gaming shops, though this is not stipulated for all tier 3 lockdowns.
“There are some areas we still need to work on convincing local leaders about the need to act,” one Whitehall source said. “You only have to look at the curve to see they are not going the right way. And so we’ve decided to go one way with Merseyside, who are ahead of the rest on things like [test] positivity – but other areas are close behind.”
Johnson described the Liverpool region as the area where the government was “able to reach agreement”. He said negotiations were continuing with local leaders and health officials are preparing to change advice if areas like Greater Manchester continue on the same trajectory.
“I know how difficult this is,” Johnson said of his talks with mayors, MPs and councillors. “They, like us, like everyone in this house, are grappling with very real dilemmas, but we cannot let the NHS fall over when lives are at stake.”
Three emergency Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate have been told to mobilise, ready to take patients. Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy medical director, warned: “This is a nationwide phenomenon. The rate are changing upwards across the UK.”
Most of England will be on the lowest tier, keeping measures introduced last month including the rule of six for gatherings and 10pm curfew for pubs and other hospitality businesses, Johnson said.
While infection rates are rising in London, a government sourcesaid: “It’s not moving at the same speed. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that there will be extra measures in London at some point but not within days.”
The “high” level (tier 2) mostly applies to areas already under local lockdown: Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and large parts of the north-east and north-west, as well as Nottinghamshire, east and west Cheshire and a small area of High Peak in Derbyshire.
Local authorities across England will receive about £1bn of new financial support, and tier 3 areas will get further financial support for local test and trace and local enforcement.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, in one of his most critical interventions yet, said the government had yet to prove local lockdowns were effective. “The question today is whether the restrictions announced by the prime minister can bring the country back from the brink, whether they can regain control of the virus and provide the support and confidence that local businesses and communities need.”
A number of Conservative MPs asked the prime minister not to allow areas to linger too long under the restrictions. Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire, warned against what he called “a constant blizzard of arbitrary rules which will only serve to collapse the economy and destroy businesses and jobs”.
Jane Stevenson, one of the Tory MPs elected in 2019, suggested she had privately opposed further restrictions for her Wolverhampton North East constituency, saying tier 2 had been imposed “despite the protestations of all three MPs, and the local council,” saying pubs in her constituency “face no financial support at all, and a devastating effect on their viability”.
Measures will be debated and voted on in the Commons on Tuesday, and come into force on Wednesday. A number of Labour and Conservative MPs have signalled they may be prepared to vote against the restrictions, particularly the 10pm national curfew.
Source: The Guardian
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