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Johnson Sticks to U.K. Virus Plan Despite Calls for Lockdown

Emily Ashton and Alex Morales
·4 mins read

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson is digging in over his regional “whack-a-mole” strategy to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, rejecting calls for a national “circuit breaker” lockdown as cases surge across the U.K.

“Let’s try to avoid the misery of another national lockdown,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “I rule out nothing, of course, in combating the virus, but we are going to do it with the local, the regional approach that can drive down and will drive down the virus if it is properly implemented.”

His comments in response to Labour’s Keir Starmer came after the opposition leader warned local restrictions are not working and demanded a lockdown across England lasting two to three weeks. The so-called circuit breaker approach is backed by 68% of Britons, according to a YouGov poll on Wednesday, and the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies called for one on Sept. 21, according to documents released this week.

But Johnson is refusing to back the move as his government tries to strike a balance between reducing virus transmission and keeping as much of the economy open as possible. He set out a three-tiered system of regional Covid alert levels this week to try to simplify the imposition of social-distancing measures.

Speaking after Johnson, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said a national lockdown would cause “needless damage” to parts of the country with low virus rates.

“The costs of doing so are not abstract, they are real,” he said. “They can be counted in jobs lost, businesses closed, and children’s education harmed. They can be measured in the permanent damage done to our economy which will undermine our long term ability to fund our NHS and our valued public services.”

Pressure

Yet the pressure on Johnson is likely to intensify, especially as other parts of the U.K. take action. On Wednesday, the U.K. recorded 137 Covid-19 deaths, down marginally on Tuesday’s 143, which was the highest daily death toll since June. Scientists warn numbers will continue to rise.

Northern Ireland is preparing to close schools from Monday and impose new restrictions on pubs and restaurants, while Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford -- who has asked Johnson to restrict travel into Wales from English hot spots -- said on Twitter his government has new rules ready to take effect Friday.

Scotland’s social-distancing regulations are already tougher than England’s, with households banned from mixing in each others’ homes. That’s a measure reserved only for the worst hot spots in Johnson’s new system. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned more steps will be necessary unless infections drop.

In England, the Liverpool region is currently the only area under the toughest rules in the new three-tier system -- with any pubs not serving food forced to close. Officials are discussing whether Greater Manchester and other areas should be added, despite objections from local leaders.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said he will consider taking legal action if the government places the region under the strictest rules. “We will resist the pressure and we will oppose any move to push us into Tier 3,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Under Starmer’s proposal, schools would stay open but the lockdown would coincide with the half-term holiday at the end of October. Pubs, bars and restaurants would close and would need substantial financial support.

‘Bleak Winter’

“If we act now, if we follow the science and break the circuit, we can get this virus under control,” Starmer said on Tuesday. “If we don’t, we can sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter.”

The Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan backed the move, tweeting that a short national lockdown would have “the biggest impact on slowing the spread.”

Meanwhile the premier was warned by his own colleagues that coronavirus restrictions are damaging people’s livelihoods and mental health, and 42 Conservative MPs voted against stricter measures on Tuesday evening. Chris Green, MP for Bolton West, resigned as a ministerial aide, saying in a letter to Johnson that “the attempted cure is worse than the disease.”

A lockdown would also slow the U.K.’s already sluggish economic recovery from the record 20% slump seen during the initial lockdown in the second quarter.

While Labour’s proposal is for a shorter period this time, the impact could still be severe. In September, JPMorgan Chase estimated a two-week shutdown of the U.K. hospitality sector could knock at least 2% off the nation’s gross domestic product.

(Updates with polling, death toll, Burnham, starting in third paragraph)

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