Tory MPs have stepped up the pressure on Boris Johnson over his handling of the second Covid wave as a bitter row festers between Downing Street and Northern leaders.
Local politicians and the Government are at loggerheads over the level of financial support Greater Manchester would get if it is forced, like Liverpool City Region, to accept the most severe coronavirus restrictions – a disagreement that has so far prevented the region from being moved into Tier 3.
And senior Tories warned Number 10 that there is now a growing rebellion on its own backbenches over the bid by ministers to encourage more areas to accept the most stringent measures.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, in an impassioned press conference, accused the Government of treating the North “with contempt” and of trying to make it the “sacrificial lamb” for unproven measures that were being carried out “on the cheap”.
“We have to protect the health of the nation but let’s do it as one nation, and not make the North of England the sacrificial lamb for an ill-thought-through Downing Street policy which doesn’t make sense in the real world,” he said on Thursday.
The Labour politician also said deputy chief medical officer for England, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, had told regional leaders that only a national-style lockdown was sure to have an impact on the rising number of Covid cases.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock called for party politics to be “set aside” in order to agree measures that could control the virus.
But senior Tories were among those arguing for Greater Manchester to be left out of the strictest freedom curbs, which includes closing large swathes of the hospitality sector.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, said it would be “very foolish” for Greater Manchester to move into Tier 3.
The Altrincham and Sale West MP told Times Radio: “We have a very clear demonstration at the moment that if you have no support amongst members of parliament, no support from the council leaders, and opposition from the Mayor as well, there clearly isn’t the broad consent for this measure that would be needed.
“And I think it would be a very foolish thing to do.”
Former minister Steve Baker suggested that there was even growing concern among the ministerial ranks about the Government’s handling of the crisis.
He said it was Mr Johnson, Mr Hancock and Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who were driving the current local lockdown approach.
In an interview with international newspapers, including Italy’s La Repubblica, Mr Baker said: “Out of 365 Tory members of parliament, I would think that probably about 350 or more are opposed to this strategy.
“This is by no means a libertarian insurrection. I can tell you that, in private, many ministers are egging on the rebels.”
Professor Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the current base level of restrictions, which includes a 10pm curfew, were the “worst of all worlds” as they inflicted economic damage while not going far enough to suppress the virus.
The director of the Wellcome Trust told the BBC’s Newscast podcast a short “circuit-break” should have been introduced in September and implored ministers to “act” as soon as possible.
His comments come as half the population of England, 26.7 million people, face being under stricter lockdown measures from Saturday.
London will move into Tier 2 of the alert system from Saturday, banning people from separate households mixing indoors – including in pubs and restaurants.
Essex, Elmbridge, Barrow-in-Furness, York, North East Derbyshire, Erewash and Chesterfield will also move into the second tier of measures.
Meanwhile, The Times reported that a Russian disinformation campaign has been set up in order to spread fear about the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine, with pictures, memes and video clips depicting the British-made inoculation as dangerous.
The paper said the campaign crudely claims the vaccine could turn people into monkeys because it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector and reported that Russia is targeting countries where it wants to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine, as well as western nations.
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical giant that plans to mass produce the Oxford vaccine if cleared for public use, said: “Misinformation is a clear risk to public health.
“I urge everyone to use reliable sources of information, to trust regulatory agencies and to remember the enormous benefit vaccines and medicines continue to bring to humanity.”
– Northern Ireland will enter the toughest controls in the UK so far with pubs and restaurants to close for four weeks as of Friday evening while schools face a two-week shutdown.
– Welsh Secretary Simon Hart said a ban proposed by the Welsh Government – due to come into force at 6pm on Friday – on people entering the country from UK coronavirus hotspots “risks stirring division and confusion”.
– Nicola Sturgeon said a new tiered system in Scotland will “strengthen our resilience to live with this virus” when it replaces temporary measures due to end on October 25.
– The latest figures show 18,980 new coronavirus cases and a further 138 deaths had been reported as of Thursday.