Boris Johnson defended placing 99 per cent of England into tough new Covid-19 restrictions as he warned that a resurgence of the virus could lead to a fresh national lockdown in January.
Swaths of England will be placed under the new, stricter measures — which in some cases include the closure of pubs, restaurants, museums and theatres — as part of a three-tier, regional system designed to keep the virus in check.
“If we ease off now we risk losing control of the virus all over again, casting aside our hard-won gains and forcing us back to a new year national lockdown,” the prime minister said at a Downing Street press conference on Thursday.
While Mr Johnson has given people carte blanche to spend up to five days at Christmas with their families in a temporary easing of the new regional restrictions, Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, warned people not to relax too much.
When asked if people should hug or kiss elderly relatives over the festive season, he replied: “No I would not . . . if you want them to survive to be hugged again.”
Once the current national lockdown ends on December 2, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Bristol will be among the areas to enter the most restrictive tier 3 measures, while London and Liverpool will be in the looser tier 2.
Only Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly — covering fewer than 1m people — will be in the least restrictive tier 1 because they have the country’s lowest coronavirus infection rates.
UKHospitality, the industry trade body, described the stricter tier 2 and tier 3 measures as “at best a restrictive straitjacket and at worst a lockdown in all but name for hospitality businesses”.
“We cannot simply flick a switch and return to normal,” Mr Hancock said. “That would lead to the NHS being overwhelmed with all that would entail.”
But some Tory backbenchers said they would vote against the measures next week. Richard Drax, a Dorset MP, accused the government of “destroying lives and livelihoods”, adding: “We need a new strategy based on common sense, not fear and more fear.”
The government set up a regional three-tier system in October but scrapped it after only three weeks in favour of a month-long national lockdown. The new system will be similar to the previous one but with some tighter restrictions.
In tier 2, which will apply to 32m people, indoor socialising with those from other households will be forbidden, meaning friends can only gather outdoors.
In tier 3, which will cover 23.3m people, no mixing of households will be permitted indoors or in most outdoor settings, hospitality venues will be closed apart from takeaways, indoor entertainment venues will be shut and travel will be discouraged.
There was outrage in Greater Manchester that the region was included in the strictest tier. United City, a business-led group campaigning to protect Manchester’s economy, said the news was “devastating”.
Politicians in the region called for cultural venues to be allowed to open in tier 3, with councillors calling their closure when shops were open “irrational and inconsistent”.
Andy Burnham, Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, said the infection rate there was rapidly falling, adding: “If the current rate of improvement continues, we will be asking the government to move our city region into tier 2 in two weeks’ time.”
Tiers are assigned based on five factors, including the area’s infection levels, pressures on the local NHS and an analysis of case rates within all age groups, particularly the over-60s. The restrictions will be subject to regular reviews every fortnight, with the first update due by December 16.
Mr Johnson said every area had the chance to move into lower tiers if its infection rate fell: “Your tier is not your destiny.”
The government is providing extra funding to local authorities in the affected areas equivalent to £4 per head for tier 3 areas and £2 per head for those in tier 2 until the end of the financial year.
Downing Street said on Thursday that funding would be made available from next week for areas in tier 3 that applied to take part in a new mass testing programme. This will be overseen by NHS test and trace, which saw its budget lifted by £7bn to £22bn in this week’s spending review.
Ministers have also pledged to provide analysis on the economic and social impact of the different tiers next week.
The Liverpool city region, which was under tier 3 restrictions before lockdown, will shift to tier 2 next week, which mayor Steve Rotheram said was vindication of people’s “hard work, dedication and sacrifice” in recent weeks.
Earlier this month the city ran a two-week pilot that tested 125,000 people and identified 1,200 asymptomatic cases of coronavirus. The region’s infection rate has fallen by two-thirds from more than 700 per 100,000 to less than 180 per 100,000 in just one month.
London’s leaders — including mayor Sadiq Khan — had pleaded for the capital to be kept out of tier 3. But the tightening of tier 2 restrictions has prompted anger from hospitality businesses who say they have been singled out by the new regime.
Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “It’s obviously better to be able to trade than not, but tier 2 still means a challenging operating environment for many in the hospitality sector.”
“The new tiers will see over 120,000 venues across England placed into tier two, with tens of thousands of these forced to close as they are unable to provide a table meal, either physically or financially,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, who warned that 1.5m jobs could be lost as a result.
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