Boris Johnson is facing mounting criticism for dismissing scientific advice over coronavirus restrictions as Downing Street stressed that economic assessments of lockdowns were also key.
Official papers showed the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested a short national lockdown was needed in England three weeks ago.
But the Prime Minister instead announced a new three-tier system governing the severity of local restrictions to come into force on Wednesday.
Labour branded the failure to act on the advice as “alarming”, saying measures need to go further, and a senior Tory said a “short, sharp, shock” would have been more effective.
The row came as No 10 warned regional leaders resisting entering the highest level of Mr Johnson’s restrictions that the Government has the power to “impose” the measures.
MPs were expected to approve the new local Covid alert levels during voting on Tuesday so the restrictions could come into force the following day.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the three-tiered system was needed to prevent more severe restrictions and spiralling deaths as he opened the Commons debate.
“And in addition, then, harder economic measures would inevitably be needed to get it under control and needed for longer,” he said.
His Labour shadow, Jonathan Ashworth, accused the Prime Minister of having stopped “following the science” and said he feared harsher measures would be needed.
Mr Ashworth said Mr Johnson was “being advised to take action and has so far refused”, and added: “It’s the same virus, the same delays, the same country and the same Government making the same mistakes again.”
Senior Tory Sir Bernard Jenkin earlier said the local advice in his Harwich and North Essex constituency was that a “short, sharp, shock” would be the best way of tackling the pandemic.
The chairman of the Commons’ powerful Liaison Committee told Times Radio: “If we nipped it hard now, we would be well back to manageable levels before Christmas. If we leave it for another five or six weeks, then … the tail of the bell curve goes well into January.”
Professor Andrew Hayward, who sits on Sage, said it was unsurprising that cases were rising with the stricter national measures having so far been ignored.
The UCL infectious diseases specialist told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it is very disappointing that we had clear advice – we needed to take decisive action several weeks ago.
“And really since that time, all we’ve done is send students back, introduced the rule of six, advised people to work from home if possible but not really promoted that in any real way and closed the pubs an hour early.”
The Sage document, dated September 21, said a package of interventions was needed to reverse the “exponential” rise in cases.
The scientists set out interventions that should be considered for “immediate” introduction, including a short national “circuit-breaker” lockdown.
Nearly all university teaching moving online, banning household mixing and closure for all bars, restaurants, cafes and gyms were also suggested.
Downing Street issued a lengthy defence for not adopting the measures, saying the scientists agree that the economic impacts and harms of restrictions must also be considered.
Pressed whether Mr Johnson was no longer following the science, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Government receives advice from a wide range of scientific experts and also from economists but it’s ultimately for ministers to make decisions.”
The spokesman insisted “robust and targeted” action was taken last month with the rule of six and the 10pm curfew, while the public was asked to work from home if they can.
So far, only the Liverpool City Region has agreed to sign up to Tier 3 restrictions, banning household mixing indoors and closing pubs unless they can operate as restaurants.
We are introducing a three tiered system of local COVID Alert Levels in England.
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— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) October 12, 2020
The Prime Minister’s spokesman declined to say which areas in the north and Yorkshire and Humber that the Government still wants to accept the severest restrictions.
But he added: “The Government does have the ability to impose measures if it’s considered that’s what’s needed to reduce transmission, to safeguard the NHS and to save lives.”
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick earlier insisted the Government could “certainly” still say it was being guided by the science despite not following the Sage recommendations.
“We have to take a balanced judgment – these are not easy decisions,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Mr Johnson on Monday set out the new system in England which will see areas put into different categories labelled as medium, high or very high risk.
The medium level maintains current national restrictions, high-risk areas will see households banned from mixing indoors, and the third tier will see harsher restrictions including the closure of pubs – unless they can operate as a restaurant.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said England’s tiered system would “give an idea” of a similar scheme she is developing, which could come into effect when stricter measures are due to be eased on October 25.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said he was “deeply disappointed” that Mr Johnson had not imposed an outright ban on travel from “very high” alert areas and is considering whether to take further action – which could include effectively closing the border.
In Northern Ireland, regulations currently prevent mixing of households, with exceptions for those “bubbling” with another household, and up to six people from up to two households can meet outdoors in a private garden.