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U.K. Virus Plan in Trouble as Johnson Faces Northern Revolt

Alex Morales and Tim Ross
·4 mins read
U.K. Virus Plan in Trouble as Johnson Faces Northern Revolt
U.K. Virus Plan in Trouble as Johnson Faces Northern Revolt

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson’s coronavirus strategy descended into disarray three days after it was announced, as local leaders rejected his regional approach and U.K. government scientists pushed for an emergency national lockdown to slow the rate of infections.

London will face tighter restrictions from Saturday, with a ban on households mixing indoors, but political leaders in Manchester, northern England, are now in open revolt, refusing Johnson’s request to move to the highest level of pandemic curbs unless he provides more generous financial support.

Johnson on Friday said the government wants to keep working with local leaders, who he said were key to the success of the strategy.

“Clearly if you’re going to enforce these measures, if you’re going to do proper local testing and tracing, if you’re going to get local buy-in and compliance, then local leadership is crucial,” he said. “I’d much rather not impose things.”

Earlier, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s position “crazy.”

Rising Toll

Amid a surge in Covid-19 cases -- with 138 more deaths reported Thursday -- the prime minister is holding out against a second full national lockdown, instead announcing a three-tier system of restrictions targeted on virus hot spots.

Figures Friday are likely to increase the pressure on the government. New infections in England were running at 27,900 a day between Oct. 2 and Oct. 8, a sharp increase on the previous week, according to the Office for National Statistics’ latest survey. Around one in 160 people had the virus, with infection rates highest in the northwest at about 1.3% of the community population.

In a victory for the government, Lancashire, in northwest England, agreed the imposition of the strictest rules from Saturday, with most household mixing banned and pubs and bars closed, the Department for Health said in a statement on Friday

The opposition Labour Party has thrown its weight behind a call for a short so-called circuit breaker lockdown that was recommended by the government’s own scientific advisers last month.

Lockdown Calls

The scientists are still pushing for one to break the chain of transmission, potentially timing nationwide curbs to coincide with the late October school holidays. But even they believe it may be too late for a national lockdown to bring virus cases back down to the lower levels seen in August.

Speaking privately, senior officials warned a short, sharp, shutdown may end up lasting much longer, or need to be repeated. Ministers fear that would further cripple an economy already battered by the pandemic.

Jeremy Farrar, a senior member of the government’s SAGE panel of scientific advisers, said the divisions risk hampering efforts to bring the virus under control. “This fragmentation, and frankly making this either a north-south or a party political issue, that’s a very dangerous route to go on,” he told the BBC.

‘Worst of All Worlds’

Farrar proposed a national lockdown as soon as possible and warned the current restrictions would fail to control the pandemic while still damaging the economy. “I think we’re in the worst of all worlds here,” he said.

The Lancashire restrictions announced on Friday include closing casinos, bingo halls, betting shops and soft play areas from Monday. The county was given 12 million pounds of additional funding, as well as the support of a ministerial taskforce to help local businesses recover over the next six months.

On Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced new rules in London will take effect from 00:01 a.m. Saturday. As well as a ban on household mixing, people will be discouraged from using public transport.

Pushing Back

Local leaders in Manchester, who rejected plans to put the northwestern city region into the highest tier of virus restrictions without more compensation for businesses and workers, were joined by other areas in pushing back on Friday.

“The government is claiming that the North is divided and only interested in getting what we can for our own region,” a grouping of northern mayors said in a joint statement. “This is a fight for what is right.”

Some Conservative MPs in the region have also spoken out against the government’s push to toughen restrictions, though their argument is focused less on financial support than the infringement of civil liberties.

“It would be a very foolish thing to do,” influential Tory MP Graham Brady told Times Radio on Thursday. “If you try to do these things without consent, people lose patience very quickly.”

(Updates with comment from Johnson starting in third paragraph)

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