Boris Johnson warned northern leaders that a failure to agree tougher coronavirus restrictions within days would be “unforgivable” as he faced doubt and frustration over a new system designed to prevent the “inexorable” spread of Covid-19.
The prime minister unveiled a three-tier system splitting England into medium risk (tier 1), high risk (tier 2) and very high risk (tier 3) areas. Under the new rules, nearly a third of the country – more than 17 million people – face localised curbs.
Liverpool city region was the only area categorised as very high risk on Monday – with pubs forced to close and household mixing banned in almost all circumstances from Wednesday for at least four weeks.
Greater Manchester and the north-east resisted attempts to close their hospitality sectors, insisting that ministers had not provided scientific evidence and saying the measures were proving counterproductive.
But Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, told a Downing Street press conference that even the toughest curbs would probably not contain the spread of the virus in the worst-hit areas and said local authorities would need to add extra restrictions. “The base will not be sufficient. I think that’s very clearly the professional view,” he said.
Documents leaked to the Guardian last week said Sage scientists had advised the closure of all hospitality and leisure venues in tier 3, which suggests that the measures have since been watered down. Whitty said there would need to be significant sacrifices in the coming months. “The idea we can do this without causing harm is an illusion,” he said.
More people are hospitalised with Covid-19 than when the country entered full lockdown on 23 March, Johnson told the briefing, while cases were up to levels last seen in early May. “These figures are flashing at us like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet, and we must act now,” he said.
However, shortly afterwards documents were released showing that Sage had advised the government three weeks ago to bring in five measures including a short “circuit breaker” lockdown, or else face a “very large epidemic”.
The official documents dated 21 September also called for a ban on household mixing in homes; the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms and services such as hairdressers; and all university and college teaching to be online “unless absolutely essential”. Only one of the five Sage proposals has been introduced nationally – an exhortation for people to work from home if they can.
The harsh new restrictions come amid anger from northern mayors and some Tory MPs over the level of financial support for areas facing disruption. A number of MPs and local politicians claimed they were left out of meetings about the new system or given just minutes’ notice.
Despite calls for the government to increase the level of furlough support for workers at firms forced to close their doors by new lockdowns, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, told the briefing measures he announced last week were sufficient to protect people from financial hardship.
Moving to quell anger on the backbenches, the prime minister also announced a further £1bn of “new financial support” for local areas struggling to contain the economic fallout.
In a sign that Downing Street hopes to persuade swathes of the north to accept harsher measures, Johnson told MPs he was urging leaders to continue negotiating. “I believe not to act would be unforgivable, so I hope that rapid progress can be made in the coming days,” he said.
Johnson added: “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.”
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, who fought hard against his region being put into Tier 3 restrictions, said he was pleased the government had agreed not to close pubs and bars in the region for now. “It’s mixing that spreads the disease and we don’t have evidence that hospitality is the main cause,” he said.
Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, reacted with fury to blanket tier 2 restrictions in his region – banning households from mixing indoors but subjecting outdoor meetings to the rule of six – and suggested he was blindsided by the decision.
“This is not something regional leaders supported, nor what I believed would be happening following extensive conversations over recent days. The region was united, cross-party, in supporting the existing restrictions,” he said. “This is something the latest local epidemiology does not support, and I am disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with this despite the united view of local leaders.”
Johnson said he wanted to “simplify and standardise” rules while avoiding a new national lockdown. In the Liverpool city region, pubs and bars must close unless they are food-based and serve alcohol only with meals. Restaurants can stay open. Gyms, leisure centres, casinos, betting shops and adult gaming shops will close, although this is not -stipulated for all tier 3 lockdowns.
Johnson described the Liverpool region as the area where the government was “able to reach agreement”. He said negotiations were continuing with local leaders and health officials are preparing to change advice if areas like Greater Manchester continue on the same trajectory. However, the mayor of Liverpool city region, Steve Rotheram, said it was “disingenuous” to suggest Merseyside’s leaders were behind the decision to introduce tougher restrictions. He told Channel 4 News: “There was no choice with the tier that we were going into and the restrictions that we were therefore placed under.”
Council leaders in north-east England fought off a late attempt by the government to place the region in tier 3. They told the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, on Monday morning that they strongly resisted having to close pubs, bars and other facilities because they had seen little evidence that those venues were driving the infection rate.
One council chief on the call said: “It was almost like we were being bribed to go into tier 3 because that’s where all the money is.”
Three emergency Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate have been told to mobilise, ready to take patients. Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy medical director, warned: “This is a nationwide phenomenon. The rate is changing upwards across the UK.”
Most of England will be on the lowest tier, keeping measures introduced last month, including the rule of six for gatherings and 10pm curfew for pubs and other hospitality businesses, Johnson said.
While infection rates are rising in London, a government source said: “It’s not moving at the same speed. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that there will be extra measures in London at some point, but not within days.”
The “high” level (tier 2) mostly applies to areas already under local lockdown: Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and large parts of the north-east and north-west, as well as Nottinghamshire, east and west Cheshire, and a small area of High Peak in Derbyshire.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, in one of his most critical interventions yet, said the government had yet to prove that local lockdowns were effective. “The question today is whether the restrictions announced by the prime minister can bring the country back from the brink, whether they can regain control of the virus and provide the support and confidence that local businesses and communities need.”
A number of Conservative MPs asked the prime minister not to allow areas to linger too long under the restrictions. Philip Davies, MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire, warned against what he called “a constant blizzard of arbitrary rules which will only serve to collapse the economy and destroy businesses and jobs”.
Jane Stevenson, one of the Tory MPs elected in 2019, suggested that she had privately opposed further restrictions for her Wolverhampton North East constituency, saying tier 2 had been imposed “despite the protestations of all three MPs and the local council”.
The measures will be debated and voted on in the Commons on Tuesday, and come into force on Wednesday. A number of Labour and Conservative MPs have signalled that they may be prepared to vote against the restrictions, particularly the 10pm national curfew.
Additional reporting Josh Halliday and Richard Partington
• This article was amended on 13 October 2020. An earlier version included council areas in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where there are no tier plans yet in place.