Boris Johnson is facing a growing schism within his cabinet over how to respond to a steady rise in coronavirus cases that has triggered calls for further lockdown measures.
The “deepening split between senior ministers” sees “doves”, who want to protect the UK economy, going up against “hawks”, who are calling for tougher restrictions, says the Daily Mail.
The division is yet another headache for the prime minister, who was criticised by the Institute for Government last month for failing to act immediately to curb the initial outbreak – a delay that the think tank said cost a “significant” number of lives.
What is the current state of play?
The UK recorded 14,542 new coronavirus infections and 76 related deaths yesterday, and the number of Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital has increased steadily over the past month to a current total of 2,833, according to government figures.
Coronavirus deaths have also been increasing, with a 50% rise in a single week last month. Office for National Statistics data shows that 215 people lost their lives to the virus in England and Wales in the week ending 25 September, up from 76 the week before.
The figures remain “well below those reported in the spring”, but marked the third weekly increase in a row, says The Times.
Who are the lockdown hawks?
The most notable hawks are Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Hancock confirmed today that he will announce changes to the lockdown rules in England, amid speculation that the current system is to be replaced with a three-tier ranking. The health boss said that the government would outline a “more simplified” approach and acknowledged the need for local action to be “more consistent”.
The announcement comes just weeks after he warned that restrictions will get tougher if rules are not followed, telling the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that the country was facing a “tipping point” in its battle with the pandemic.
Gove, meanwhile, has repeatedly refused to rule out further lockdown measures. Offering a “major hint” of what may be to come, according to the Daily Express, he told a conference of the Blue Collar Conservatism pressure group last week that “we need to see the rate of infection fall”.
”At the moment, we know that the infection rate is rising particularly in the North of England but not exclusively,” Gove said. “I think we need to make sure we take all the measures necessary.”
And the doves?
Lockdown “doves” are those who believe that protecting the economy by eschewing lockdown measures is the best approach. Unsurprisingly, the most prominent member of this camp is Rishi Sunak.
Indeed, the chancellor has been busy “cementing his status” as the leading cabinet dove, and last night made an “11th-hour intervention” that may delay the expected announcement later this week of the new three-tier Covid alert system, the Daily Mail reports.
Sunak is is “said to have accepted the need for the new system but is concerned about the mechanism by which the most severe restrictions are imposed”, The Telegraph adds. In a bid to tackle that issue, he is leading a push for ministers to be “given the final say over when an area is required to enter the top tier of restrictions”.
The chancellor is proposing that decisions on lockdown measures be made by Johnson, Hancock and himself.
Sunak is also pushing his anti-lockdown approach to voters, telling The Sun: “I don’t think it’s wrong for people to want to strive for normality and I don’t think it’s wrong for the government to want that for people.”
“Lockdowns obviously have a very strong economic impact, but they have an impact on many other things,” he continued, and “we have to look at this all in the round and beating coronavirus is important and minimising the harm that it causes is important”.
The chancellor has won the backing of a group of council leaders in the North who have attacked the existing local lockdown system.
The leaders of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle city councils – Judith Blake, Richard Leese and Nick Forbes – have teamed up with Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson to send a letter to the health secretary saying that while they are “extremely concerned” about the rises in Covid cases, they will not back measures that harm their local economies.