Johnson defends coronavirus approach as best way to avoid ‘misery’ of lockdown
Boris Johnson insisted he wanted to avoid the “misery” of another national lockdown as he pressed local leaders in northern England to accept tougher coronavirus restrictions.
The Prime Minister clashed with Sir Keir Starmer over the Labour leader’s call for a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown aimed at getting the virus back under control.
The testy exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions came as Greater Manchester’s leaders resisted efforts to place the city in the highest risk category, which would mean the closure of pubs and bars.
The Prime Minister’s new three-tier system of coronavirus restrictions for England came into effect on Wednesday, but the Liverpool City Region is the only area to be under the toughest rules.
Government health officials are expected to discuss with councillors in Greater Manchester and Lancashire whether to classify the areas as “very high”.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said that the Tier 3 restrictions are “fundamentally flawed” and “we won’t accept it”.
But in Lancashire, Tory county council leader Geoff Driver said it is “inevitable” his region would enter Tier 3.
The row came as a model by scientists advising the Government suggested that thousands of deaths could be prevented by a short national lockdown over half-term.
They argued that the coronavirus resurgence could be brought back under control by the so-called circuit-breaker that would buy ministers time to improve the test and trace system.
Sir Keir’s decision to back a short lockdown has fractured the fragile consensus on the coronavirus response that existed at Westminster, and in the Commons he suggested the Prime Minister’s failure to follow scientific advice had cost lives.
The Labour leader said that since the Sage scientific advisory panel’s advice was given on September 21 “the infection rate has quadrupled, hospital admissions have gone from 275 a day to 628 a day in England, yesterday 441 Covid patients were on ventilators and the number of deaths recorded was – tragically – the highest since June 10”.
“That’s the cost of rejecting the advice,” Sir Keir told Mr Johnson.
The Prime Minister – who did not rule out the possibility of a circuit-breaker – accused Sir Keir of opportunism.
Defending the Government’s approach, he said: “The whole point is to seize this moment now to avoid the misery of another national lockdown – into which he wants to go headlong – by delivering a regional solution.”
And he urged Sir Keir to “get on to his Labour friends in those parts of the north of England where we want to work with them to put those very stringent measures in place in order to deliver the reductions that the whole country wants to see”.
Further pressure for the circuit-breaker came with a new paper produced by experts advising the Government.
Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it may be too late to implement a two-week circuit-breaker over the October school half-term but that December could be an option.
Prof Medley said thousands of deaths could be prevented up to January with a circuit-breaker but that did not necessarily translate into lives saved from coronavirus in the long-term.
But Prof Medley said lives would undoubtedly be saved through the NHS not becoming overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases and the knock-on impact that would have on other care.
The modelling paper written by Prof Medley and colleagues sets out that deaths could possibly reduce for the rest of the year from about 19,900 to 12,100. Hospital admissions could be reduced from 132,400 to 66,500.
Prof Medley said: “People have said this is kicking the can down the road, and it is – you’re not saving lives.
“In the paper, we look between October and the end of the year, and what you’re doing is delaying the next wave until after January, so yes it does look as though you’re preventing deaths in that time period, but it just means that you’ve delayed (them).”
Northern Ireland has announced that pubs and restaurants will close for four weeks – with the exception of takeaways and deliveries – while schools will close on Monday for two weeks, one of which will cover the half-term break.
First Minister Arlene Foster said: “We do not take this step lightly.”
Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford told Sky News he is “very actively talking about and preparing for” a circuit-breaker for the nation.
The three-tier system involves England being put into different categories labelled as medium, high or very high risk.
The medium level maintains current national restrictions, the high level will see households banned from mixing indoors, while the third tier involves harsher restrictions including the closure of pubs.
Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson said that crowds of people partying as Merseyside’s Tier 3 restrictions came into place “shame our city”.
Paul Brand, a councillor in Liverpool, said the city’s intensive care units are already more than 90% full, with the city soon expected to reach levels of bed occupancy seen during the first wave of Covid-19.