Boris Johnson has warned that rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions are flashing like “dashboard warnings in a passenger jet” as he set out a new three-tier system of alert levels for England.
Pubs and bars across Merseyside will close unless they serve food and alcohol as part of a sit-down meal as the Liverpool city region moves into a “very high” Covid alert level under the new system.
Addressing a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said cases nationally had gone up four times in four weeks, there are more Covid-19 patients in UK hospitals than on March 23 when the country went into lockdown, and deaths are rising.
“These figures are flashing at us like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet and we must act now,” he said but stressed he was taking a “moderate” and “balanced” approach to saving lives while trying to protect the economy.”
Mr Johnson said he did not want another national lockdown but did not rule one out either, adding he would not impose such “extreme” measures “right now”.
Mr Johnson also pledged that “no one affected by this will be left to fend for themselves”, with the Government having previously announced new financial assistance.
“No one, least of all me, wants to impose these kinds of restrictions, erosions of our personal liberty, but I’m convinced as I’ve ever been that the British people have the resolve to beat this virus and that together we will do just that,” Mr Johnson said.
Earlier, the Prime Minister launched the three-tier system of local alert levels for England, with the Liverpool city region placed in the most serious “very high” risk category from Wednesday.
Mr Johnson told MPs that the coming weeks and months would “test the mettle” of the country as it faced a second wave of Covid-19 cases.
Under the new arrangements:
– The medium alert level will cover most of England and will consist of the current national measures, including the rule of six and the 10pm curfew.
– The high alert level reflects interventions in many areas subject to local restrictions, preventing mixing between different households indoors.
Most areas which are already subject to local restrictions will automatically move into this category, as well as Nottinghamshire, East and West Cheshire and a small area of High Peak.
– The very high alert level will mean, at a minimum, the closure of pubs and bars and a ban on social mixing indoors and in private gardens.
Areas in the top tier will be able to impose extra restrictions, and in the Liverpool city region this will mean the closure of leisure centres, gyms, betting shops and casinos.
MPs will debate and vote on the measures on Tuesday and the new tiered system will come into effect on Wednesday.
At the Downing Street press conference, England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said people in the South West, South East and the East of England should not be “lulled into a false sense of security” over current lower infection rates.
But he said the actions of people across the country in following rules such as social distancing had prevented case numbers and hospital admissions from being far worse.
Prof Whitty said he was “very confident” the measures being put in place would slow the virus but suggested tighter restrictions may be needed for regions in Tier 3.
And he pledged the UK would be in a “remarkably better place” next winter, saying: “This does not depend on a vaccine, science will support us from many different directions.
“I cannot predict, and no-one can predict what are the combinations of treatments, vaccines, diagnostics and other interventions that we will have available to us, but I am extremely confident that when we go into the next winter we will do so in a remarkably better place than we do today.”
Addressing the new measures in a joint statement, metro mayor Steve Rotheram, city mayor Joe Anderson and the leaders of Liverpool City Region’s six local authorities said it was made clear by ministers that Merseyside would be placed in the highest tier “regardless of if we engaged with them or not”.
The local leaders said they shared the Government’s “grave concerns” about the pressure on the region’s hospitals and had worked with Whitehall to negotiate a package of support for the region.
Liverpool City Region is so far the only area to be placed in the “very high” category.
The Prime Minister said talks were continuing with local leaders in the North West, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber about the approach there and the support available if they moved into the third tier.
“I know how difficult this is – they like us, like everyone in this House, are grappling with very real dilemmas.
“But we cannot let the NHS fall over when lives are at stake.”
He said authorities being placed in the “very high” alert level would gain extra support from Whitehall – including the possibility of military assistance to support local services.
There was £1 billion of new support on offer to local authorities across England, Mr Johnson said.
Measures would be kept under review, with a four-week sunset clause for areas facing the toughest restrictions.
Mr Johnson defended the approach adopted by the Government in attempting to keep much of the economy open while curbing the spread of the virus.
“This is not how we want to live our lives, but this is the narrow path we have to tread between the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown and the massive human and indeed economic cost of an uncontained epidemic,” he said.
Mr Johnson rejected suggestions that restrictions should be eased, with the virus allowed to spread among younger people but the vulnerable shielded.
The “bleak mathematics” indicated there would not only be an “intolerable death toll” from Covid-19, but the strain would impact other areas of the NHS, causing long-term damage, he said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “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.
“That is how high the stakes now are.”