The prime minister is to make a statement to MPs on Monday giving details of new restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus in England.
A letter from Boris Johnson’s adviser to MPs in the North West seen by says it is “very likely” some areas will face further restrictions.
Confusion Or Solution?
But some regional leaders warn the new plan for a three-tier local lockdown system will only create more confusion.
It comes as a doctors’ union calls for clearer and more stringent rules.
Under the new restrictions, pubs and restaurants could be closed in parts of northern England and the Midlands – where some of the highest numbers of cases are occurring – while a ban on overnight stays is also being considered.
It is understood that the most severe measures – imposed for areas in tier three – would be agreed with local leaders in advance.
The details of each tier, including the level of infection at which an area would qualify for it and the nature of the restrictions, are being debated this weekend.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was grossly irresponsible for anonymous government sources to tell newspapers on Thursday about plans for further restrictions on millions of people, without any detail, consultation or statement from the prime minister.
The letter to the MPs from Downing Street’s chief strategic adviser Sir Edward Lister says the government is hoping to “finalise these details as soon as possible” amid “rising incidence in parts of the country”.
It also cites the “engagement that is taking place today and during the course of the weekend with local authority leaders in your region”.
Sir Edward says the set of measures being discussed “present difficult choices. We must seek to strike the right balance between driving down transmission, and safeguarding our economy and society from the worst impact”.
In the face of pressure from MPs, elected mayors and council leaders, the prime minister has signalled he wants “much closer engagement” with local politicians.
As a senior government source said, they will bring “expertise on what will work in their regions”.
Top tier Restrictions
The hope is for “top tier” restrictions in the new multi-level system to be agreed between the government and local leaders in advance.
There is an acknowledgement from inside government that this marks a change in approach. It is a shift away from what Labour described as a “Whitehall knows best” attitude.
It will allow local politicians, some of whom until now have complained of being frozen out, to have a greater input.
But it will also mean they are accountable, alongside government ministers, for the success or failure of the measures introduced.
They will have to share the responsibility, perhaps blame, if measures don’t work or prove unpopular.
And amid calls for clarity, it seems the new tiered system could vary region by region, making clear national messaging more difficult.
Susan Hopkins, deputy director of Public Health England’s national infection service, said the number of cases was rising all over the country, but more quickly in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber than the South.
She said it was concerning that cases were rising “quite fast” in pockets of north-west England among the over-60s, the group most likely to need to be admitted to hospital.
A number of areas in the North West, the North East and the Midlands are already subject to stricter restrictions. A tiered system of measures is designed to replace the patchwork of existing rules across the country.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions there needed to be “greater freedom for local areas to design measures for themselves”.
He said there was “a merit to simplicity”, adding that in local areas “local leaders will know best”.
Liverpool’s Labour Mayor Joe Anderson said he expected Liverpool – where there are currently 600 cases per 100,000 people – to be placed in tier three, under the highest set of restrictions.
He told the BBC’s Today programme he understood this would involve the lockdown of all the city’s pubs from Wednesday.
He said the government was wrong to allow Liverpool’s bars and pubs to stay open this weekend, with infection rates so high.
He accepted people in the city should take individual responsibility and said he was “angry and frustrated” at those flouting the rules, but added: “I’m not convinced people trust the government’s decisions.”
Infections Have Seen A Surge
Asked what his role would be in setting the restrictions, he said there had been conversation with Downing Street, but no consultation. It was clear the decisions had already been made, he said, but they were listening to his suggestions about how spikes in the city could best be dealt with.
Martin Gannon, Labour leader of Gateshead Council, said there had been “warm words” in a meeting with civil servants but ultimately the laws would be made by government.
He said he would oppose any further restrictions placed on the North East, saying they could be “counter-productive” and lead to resistance from the public. Current measures were starting to bring down case numbers, he insisted, and the government needed to help local authorities win people’s confidence.
And Glen Sanderson, Conservative leader of Northumberland County Council, said he did not want blanket restrictions on Northumberland, which has large rural areas “virtually unaffected” by the virus as well as towns where case numbers were rising.
“I don’t think the argument is there to bring in much tougher restrictions – we have to take people with us. If we can’t get people to conform, we won’t make any progress,” he told.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association (BMA) said the government’s measures to reduce the spread of the virus had not worked, given the uncontrolled escalation, and has made its own recommendations.
It wants to see masks worn in all offices and outdoors where two-metre distancing is not possible; free medical grade masks for the over-60s and vulnerable groups; financial support for businesses to become Covid-secure; and the “rule of six” tweaked to allow only two households to meet in groups of no more than six.
Chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “The infection has risen following rapid relaxation of measures and with the Westminster government letting down its guard – as recently as August, the government was encouraging people to travel, go to work and mix in restaurants and pubs.”
Speaking at the Co-operative Party virtual conference, Labour leader Sir Keir accused the government of serial incompetence, saying a test, trace and isolate system was “critical”. Without that, “thousands and thousands of people are walking around today who should be in self-isolation”, he warned.