Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 strategy was in danger of unravelling on Wednesday after regional leaders in northern England resisted pressure from Number 10 for new restrictions to stop the surge in virus infections.
Mr Johnson insisted that his “three tier” policy of regional restrictions would work, but he is now facing intense pressure from Labour and his scientific advisers to instead impose a short, sharp national lockdown.
That pressure increased when Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said he and the leaders of the 10 boroughs in the region would resist pressure to impose tighter local measures.
Civic leaders in Lancashire, Yorkshire and north-east England have also opposed extra restrictions, refusing to follow the example of the Liverpool city region, currently the only part of England in tier 3 — a “very high” state of alert over the virus.
Mr Burnham said the government was “passing the buck and passing the bill” to local areas without providing enough economic support. He added: “We are not going to cave in. They will have to impose it.”
But there were signs of potential movement on Wednesday evening, when Mr Burnham wrote on Twitter that he had just concluded a briefing with the deputy chief medical officer.
“We are expecting a further meeting with the PM’s team in the morning,” he wrote.
Mr Johnson has reserved the right to impose new restrictions on specific areas, but the stand-off with northern leaders at a time when scientists are calling for immediate lockdowns is a serious setback.
Tory MPs in the north have warned Mr Johnson of the dangers of imposing new restrictions “by diktat”. The prime minister also fears that some people would not follow new rules if they were opposed by local leaders.
Mr Burnham said Manchester would “respect the law of the land” if told to impose tier 3 restrictions — which include pub closures and a ban on all household mixing — but would consider a legal challenge to stop them.
He said the basic tier 3 restrictions were not enough to bring cases down but were punitive enough to damage the economy and lead to “health harms” such as mental illness.
To have any impact, the authorities would have to shut not just 1,900 pubs but also restaurants, the leisure sector and hair and beauty salons, putting more than 100,000 out of work, Mr Burnham said. Self-employed people would get no help.
Greater Manchester would need “substantial financial support” to agree to a higher alert level, including a furlough scheme offering 80 per cent of salary to people unable to work as a result, he added.
After the Liverpool city region reluctantly agreed to enter the very high alert level, Mr Johnson lavished praise on Steve Rotheram, the mayor, prompting Labour claims in the region that he had “sold out”.
Mr Burnham and Mr Rotheram said a so-called national circuit-breaker — a new countrywide lockdown described by Mr Johnson as a recipe for “misery” — was the only way to bring down cases. That policy is now advocated by Labour leader Keir Starmer.
Northern Ireland introduced its own version of the policy on Wednesday, with plans to close schools, pubs and restaurants. The restrictions — the toughest imposed in the UK in the second phase of the virus — would last four weeks with the exception of schools, which would close for two weeks.
Tensions between London and Cardiff have risen as well. Wales said it would ban people from areas of the UK with high numbers of cases from entering the country from Friday, acting after Mr Johnson refused to introduce movement restrictions.
The Labour-run Welsh government is drawing up plans for its
own circuit-breaker lockdown.
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Although no final decision has been made, the proposal is for a
fortnight-long lockdown timed to coincide with the start of half-term
at the end of next week in most of Wales.
London is expected soon to enter the “high” alert level of tier 2, the level at which households are banned from mixing in indoor settings.
Mr Johnson is caught in a vice between those led by Sir Keir who want a tough national lockdown and the many MPs in his own party who said the limited current restrictions have gone too far.
Although Mr Johnson insisted his favoured regional approach would “drive down the virus”, he left open the door for a national lockdown: “I rule out nothing in combating the virus,” he said.
Political gravity may force the prime minister into a national circuit-breaker with tough restrictions — lasting at least two weeks — despite the concerns of the chancellor Rishi Sunak, rightwing newspapers and many Tory MPs.
Mr Johnson’s scientific advisers are recommending such a course of action and public opinion appears to support it. YouGov on Wednesday found that 68 per cent backed a circuit-breaker over the October school half-term, while only 20 per cent opposed it.
If Mr Johnson is either unable or unwilling to enforce tier 3 restrictions across cities in the North of England and the Midlands, he may be forced into imposing a national lockdown.
But that would leave him with another big political problem: Tory MPs representing shire counties with relatively few Covid-19 cases are warning Mr Johnson not to close down local economies unnecessarily.
Gary Streeter, Tory MP for South West Devon, said such a move would be an “extreme disappointment”. Another Tory MP representing a seat in East Anglia said: “The mood here is keep London out — let us deal with it.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “These decisions are made in close consultation with local leaders and public health experts, informed by the latest evidence from the JBC [Joint Biosecurity Centre] and NHS Test and Trace, PHE [Public Health England] and the chief medical officer for England.
“We constantly review the evidence and will take swift action where necessary.”
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard, Robert Wright and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe