Boris Johnson’s coronavirus strategy was at risk of unravelling as civic leaders in the north of England threatened legal action over his efforts to force them to accept tighter restrictions.
Amid an escalating battle of wills between London and the regions and nations of the UK, the prime minister piled on pressure for the closure of pubs and restaurants across wide swathes of the north, telling the House of Commons that a lack of cooperation from local authorities threatened the success of his plan to bring surging infection rates under control.
But he suffered another challenge to his authority as Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford announced he was taking powers to block cross-border travel from high-risk areas of England from Friday.
And Northern Ireland broke away from the rest of the UK by announcing a four-week “circuit-breaker”, during which hospitality venues will be barred from opening except for takeaways and deliveries and schools will shut for an extended fortnight’s half-term.
As daily positive tests neared 20,000, Mr Johnson was coming under intense pressure to announce a two-week national circuit-break, backed by his Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) in September and now by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who accused the PM of “abandoning the science”.
A YouGov poll found 68 per cent of voters, including 65 per cent of Tory supporters, back the idea against just 20 per cent who do not.
In fiery clashes at prime minister’s questions, Mr Johnson insisted he wanted to avoid the “misery” of a second national lockdown but declined to rule out a circuit-breaker if his regional approach does not work.
Fuel was added by a scientific paper which found that a time-limited return to strict controls on social and economic activity could save thousands of lives, reducing UK coronavirus-related deaths for the rest of the year from about 19,900 to 12,100 and hospital admissions from 132,400 to 66,500.
But one of the study’s authors, the London School of Hygiene professor of infectious disease modelling and Sage member Graham Medley, warned that the PM may have left it too late to act in the October half-term, and suggested he could instead consider a Christmas holiday circuit-break to avoid disruption to education, with a possible repeat in the spring.
“Christmas is going to be very difficult anyway,” said Prof Medley. “In some ways we kind of missed the boat a little.”
In the Commons, Sir Keir said that since the Sage advice was given on 21 September “the infection rate has quadrupled, hospital admissions have gone from 275 a day to 628 a day in England, yesterday 441 Covid patients were on ventilators and the number of deaths recorded was – tragically – the highest since 10 June”.
“That’s the cost of rejecting the advice,” Sir Keir told Mr Johnson.
The prime minister defended his approach, saying: “The whole point is to seize this moment now to avoid the misery of another national lockdown – into which he wants to go headlong – by delivering a regional solution.”
And he urged Sir Keir to “get on to his Labour friends in those parts of the north of England where we want to work with them to put those very stringent measures in place in order to deliver the reductions that the whole country wants to see”.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak appeared to suggest national measures were a last resort: “We can’t just let the virus take hold. But nor can we blithely fall into another national spring-style lockdown, as the opposition now want to do, without trying everything possible first.”
At a “Gold Command” meeting with senior advisers, health secretary Matt Hancock discussed proposals to move Greater Manchester and Lancashire on to the highest level of the three-tier restriction system.
Coming into effect on Wednesday, the system currently imposes the toughest tier 3 restrictions – including the closure of pubs, restaurants, gyms, leisure centres, betting shops and casinos – only on Merseyside.
Mr Hancock will meet chief medical officers on Thursday before a statement to MPs in the Commons, amid growing expectation that the government could impose restrictions if they are not accepted voluntarily.
Downing Street confirmed that intensive talks were continuing with mayors and councils in the northwest, northeast and Yorkshire and Humber in the hope of forging “the maximum possible consensus on what would be the most severe kind of local actions”.
But Mr Johnson’s spokesperson added: “The government does have the ability to impose measures if it was felt that was what was needed to reduce transmission”.
There was a defiant response from Greater Manchester, where mayor Andy Burnham and leaders of the city’s 10 councils denounced “fundamentally flawed” efforts to move the area into tier 3.
Mr Burnham said that the city was ready to take legal action to protect “many thousands of residents who are going to be left in severe hardship in the run-up to Christmas” if the move goes ahead.
“We would not just leave them in the lurch, we would try and support them and that would include any legal action we could take on their behalf,” he said.
He indicated that a key sticking point would be an improvement to the financial support offered to workers of businesses forced to shut, currently worth 67 per cent of wages. Any tier 3 scheme with a furlough payment of less than 80 per cent would be “an act of self-harm”, he said.
The mayor of the Liverpool City region, Steve Rotheram said that the support announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak was “inadequate” and his authority would be topping it up.
He accused the government of trying to do “lockdown on the cheap in the north”.
After scenes of partying on the streets of Liverpool on the eve of the new restrictions, a city doctor warned that intensive care capacity in the city is running at 90 per cent, with more than 300 patients in beds.
Pleading with residents to observe the regulations, Liverpool University professor Calum Semple described the situation as “dire”, and warned healthcare capacity would be overrun “in the next week or so”.
City mayor Joe Anderson said the revelling “shames our city”. He revealed that 8,436 Liverpool pupils and 527 teachers were self-isolating, with 206 teachers and 265 pupils testing positive for coronavirus in the past 14 days
Nationwide, a further 19,724 new positive test results and 137 fatalities were recorded in the past 24 hours,
In Lancashire, Tory county council leader Geoff Driver said it was “inevitable” his region would enter tier 3. And Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen revealed that civic leaders will meet with Downing Street on Friday to press for additional support for businesses if the area is also moved into the top bracket.