Millions of people in England are facing tougher restrictions on their social and work lives after Boris Johnson announced a new coronavirus alert system and ordered the shutdown of pubs and bars across Merseyside.
The move came after government medical advisers gave a chilling warning that hospitals are now treating more patients for Covid-19 than when the first national lockdown was imposed in March, with infections increasing fourfold in the past three weeks and spreading into older and more vulnerable groups.
And papers released late on Monday revealed that the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) was advising him to consider immediate new restrictions to reverse an “exponential” rise in cases as long ago as 21 September.
Sage’s proposals for action three weeks ago went far beyond the more limited action announced by the PM, and included a two-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown for the whole of England, closure of all bars and restaurants and online-only teaching in universities.
Meanwhile, a YouGov poll of 2,973 voters found that 40 per cent do not think the PM has gone far enough, against 19 per cent who think he got the balance right and 15 per cent who said he had gone too far.
The prime minister faced anger from civic leaders in the Liverpool City region, who revealed they were told the area would face new restrictions – also banning social gatherings indoors or in private gardens and halting wedding receptions – regardless of their objections. They warned that tens of thousands of low-paid staff will be pushed below the minimum wage by the changes.
And the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, lashed out at a new ban on households mixing in hospitality venues in much of the area, which he said was unsupported by local epidemiological evidence and opposed by regional leaders.
Mr Johnson set out a simplified Covid alert level system, dividing the whole of England into three tiers deemed at medium, high or very high risk. Only Merseyside was put on very high alert until a review in four weeks’ time, while no areas were classed as low risk.
He said immediate action was needed because data on rising coronavirus cases were flashing “like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet”. Positive tests stood at 13,972 on Monday, with 50 deaths across the UK.
But the PM backed down on threats to shut down bars and restaurants across the north of England, after meeting stiff resistance from local leaders and businesses in Greater Manchester, Yorkshire and the northeast.
He stopped short of ordering shops or restaurants – including pubs operating as restaurants – to bring down the shutters, even in the Liverpool City region, which also includes the Wirral and St Helens. And he insisted that schools and universities will remain open throughout the country.
Contrary to expectations, no travel ban was announced, though people from Merseyside are advised not to make non-essential journeys or stay overnight outside the region.
NHS medical director Stephen Powis said that within four weeks, Covid hospital admissions in the northwest could top the peak of the first wave of the outbreak in the spring, and warned that the virus was spreading southwards.
He dismissed as “wishful thinking” the idea that older and more vulnerable people could avoid infection from a second wave, which has begun among the young.
And deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said that a spike in deaths was now “baked in” because of sharp rises in infections over the past weeks.
Three temporary Nightingale field hospitals at Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate have been ordered to mobilise to prepare for the danger of NHS hospitals in the north being overwhelmed in the coming weeks.
And NHS workers in the worst-hit areas were promised regular tests, whether they have symptoms or not.
Announcing the new restrictions in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said that local lockdown measures had kept infections down during the summer, but said cases have quadrupled over the past three weeks, making it necessary to “go further”.
He told MPs: “This is not how we want to live our lives, but this is the narrow path we have to tread between the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown and the massive human and indeed economic cost of an uncontained epidemic.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer questioned whether the PM could bring Britain “back from the brink”, warning that Mr Johnson appeared to be “several steps behind the curve” and had lost control of the spread of the virus “long ago”.
Mr Johnson said he would continue to “engage” with leaders in Greater Manchester, the northeast and parts of Yorkshire over whether they should join Liverpool City in the “very high” alert tier, though he appeared to suggest this would be dependent on them accepting an offer of support from central government.
He later denied giving regional mayors an effective veto on restrictions, telling a No 10 press conference: “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.”
Mr Johnson said the government would do “our absolute best to try to make sure we can get life back to as close to normal as possible for Christmas”. But he warned: “That is going to depend, I’m afraid, on our success in getting this virus down and our ability as a country to follow through on the package of measures.”
Whitty says he is not confident tier three restrictions alone will work
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said more restrictions were likely to be needed, warning that the “base case” top-tier measures of shutting pubs and stopping households mingling would not be enough in the worst-hit areas.
“The idea that we can do this without causing harm is an illusion,” said Prof Whitty.
“It is a balancing act between two harms: a harm for society and the economy on the one hand and a harm for health on the other hand.”
Meanwhile, London mayor Sadiq Khan warned that the capital could be moved into the middle, high-alert tier “very quickly – potentially even this week”.
London, along with most of the rest of England, was placed in the lowest, medium-risk group, observing existing national restrictions such as the “rule of six” limit on the size of social gatherings and the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants.
The middle tier includes areas like West and South Yorkshire, the northeast, Leicester, Nottingham, Lancashire and much of the West Midlands, which are already under local restrictions, as well as the rest of Nottinghamshire, areas of Cheshire and parts of north Derbyshire.
The simplification of a patchwork of rules introduced under Mr Johnson’s previous “whack-a-mole” strategy means tighter restrictions for some areas, like Birmingham.
In a joint statement, Liverpool City regional leaders including metro mayor Steve Rotheram said that in discussions over the past few days, it was clear that Merseyside was facing new restrictions “regardless of if we engaged with them or not”.
While welcoming new support for localised test and trace, they warned: “The national furlough scheme is inadequate and risks pushing tens of thousands of low paid workers below the national minimum wage, while the direct support to businesses is also less than that offered during the national lockdown.”
Under measures announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak last week, the Treasury will support 67 per cent of wages for workers in businesses forced to close.
Paul Cherpeau, Liverpool Chamber of Commerce chief executive, said businesses in the city were “bewildered, frustrated and angry”.
“A week of speculation and rumour has badly damaged confidence,” said Mr Cherpeau. “Whilst our visitor economy will bear the brunt of these new restrictions, the percolating effect on supply chains is hugely concerning, in addition to the psychological impact upon our citizens, business owners and investors.”
Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said that keeping the city in the middle tier was “the right decision”.
But he called for “full local furlough” payments worth 100 per cent of wages for hospitality staff in affected areas, as well as taxi drivers and security staff who will lose work.
The chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, Paddy Tipping, told The Independent that the new rules were easier for members of the public to understand, and played down expectations that officers would come down hard on minor infringements
“I think PCCs and chiefs recognise that the situation is volatile and dangerous and want to encourage people to abide by the new rules whatever level they’re in,” he said. “Police will respond heavily and strongly to serious incidents, but the notion they will intervene where two families are talking in a park is wishful thinking.”