23.07.2024

Half of England placed under tier 2 lockdown as Hancock accuses Burnham of ‘playing politics’

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham accused the UK government of using northwest regions as the “canaries in the coalmine” for an experimental policy which “doesn’t make sense in the real world”.

Boris Johnson’s coronavirus strategy was unravelling after one of the prime minister’s top medical advisers told regional leaders it would not work and a national lockdown was needed.

More than half of the population of England will soon be subjected to heightened restrictions under the prime minister’s three-tier regional system, after areas including London, Essex and York were told to move to “high” alert status from Saturday.

But Mr Johnson was forced to back down on plans to put Greater Manchester and Lancashire into the toughest curbs alongside Merseyside after civic leaders demanded more financial support for the thousands of workers whose employers would be forced to shut down. And councils in the northeast united to say that they too would reject tier 3 status.

The row came as the test and trace system, which Mr Johnson has presented as central to his strategy, recorded its worst week ever, with just 62.6 per cent of close contacts of patients in England reached in the seven days ending 7 October.

Experts on the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) are understood to believe that the rapid rise in cases has overwhelmed the privately run operation, while Oxford University’s Professor James Naismith said the figures amounted to “proof that the system has not succeeded”. He said the available data suggested that as few as five contacts end up self-isolating for every 100 positive tests.

Some 18,980 new cases and 138 deaths were recorded across the UK on Thursday.

Mr Burnham said that the deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam had told civic leaders in Manchester that driving down coronavirus in the city would require far more widespread closures of businesses than envisaged in the “baseline” version of Mr Johnson’s plan, and that the only measure certain to work would be a national lockdown.

After Downing Street refused to improve on the offer to fund 67 per cent of wages of inactive workers, the Greater Manchester mayor accused the Johnson government of treating the north of England with “contempt”.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme, which paid up to 80 per cent of salaries, ends on 1 November, after which the state will contribute just 22 per cent. The 67 per cent offer applies only to workers in firms which close down completely in tier 3 areas.

Former homelessness tsar Louise Casey warned that people face “destitution” and may have to “prostitute themselves” without more Covid help.

Dismissing the government’s financial offer as inadequate, Mr Burnham said: “They are willing to try and sacrifice jobs and businesses here to try and save them elsewhere. They are asking us to gamble our residents’ jobs, homes and businesses and a large chunk of our economy on a strategy that their own experts tell them might not work. We would never sign up for that.”

And he added: “People are fed up of being treated in this way, the north is fed up of being pushed around. We aren’t going to be pushed around anymore.”

Matt Hancock confirms London and other parts of England moving to ‘high’ tier 2 lockdown

In a TV interview shortly after the mayor’s defiant statement, health secretary Matt Hancock did not dispute Mr Burnham’s account of Prof Van-Tam’s advice, but accused him and other leaders in the northwest of “playing party politics”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is pressing for a time-limited national “circuit-breaker” lockdown of the kind recommended by Sage.

“The situation in the northwest of England is severe,” said Mr Hancock. “The number of cases is rising exponentially – the number of people in hospital with Covid has doubled in the last 12 days. I call upon local leaders to set aside this party politics and work with us to put in place the measures that are needed.”

Under tier 2 of Mr Johnson’s alert system, some 9 million people in London will be banned from this weekend from meeting people from outside their household or support bubble in indoor locations. They are advised to travel as little as possible but are not being confined to their homes. Shops will stay open and hospitality venues remain subject to a 10pm curfew.

The same restrictions will apply to York, Barrow-in-Furness, Elmbridge in Surrey, Erewash, Chesterfield, North East Derbyshire and the whole of Essex with the exception of Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea.

The system was launched on Monday and came into effect on Wednesday with the aim of making coronavirus guidelines and regulations simpler and easier to understand, but the geographical spread of restrictions has already dramatically altered.

London mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the capital’s move from “medium” to “high” alert to reflect the fact that infection rates are nearing 100 per 100,000, but he warned Londoners that they face “a difficult winter ahead”.

“Time and again it has been shown that it is better to act earlier than to act too late,” he said. “I am not willing to put Londoners’ lives at risk and we must do all we can to minimise economic damage.

“I know these further restrictions will require Londoners to make yet more sacrifices, but the disastrous failure of the test, trace and isolate system leaves us with little choice.”

Mr Khan called for immediate financial support for affected businesses, local authorities and “vulnerable Londoners struggling to get by”.

Downing Street has not ruled out imposing tougher restrictions on regions which refuse to accept them voluntarily.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Hancock signalled that the government has not given up its plans to escalate restrictions, telling MPs that discussions were ongoing with councils and mayors and “rapid progress” was still needed.

“We must take firm and balanced decisions to keep this virus under control,” he said.

“This is the only way to protect lives and livelihoods and we must act now … We make these decisions with a heavy heart with the sole aim to steering our nation through troubled waters. Things will get worse before they get better but I know that there are brighter skies and calmer seas ahead.”

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