Michael Gove has called on Sir Keir Starmer to “pick up the phone” and tell local Labour leaders in Manchester to “show leadership” by agreeing to place the region under tier three restrictions.
In the latest war of words between ministers and Andy Burnham, Mr Gove accused the mayor of Greater Manchester of “posturing” and urged him to accept the additional measures to “save people’s lives.”
With neither side willing to budge after a week of fierce political wrangling, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster added that Manchester’s leadership were making a “mistake” by delaying and signalled that the changes could still be imposed without their consent.
"I want them to put aside for a moment some of the political positioning that they've indulged in and I want them to work with us in order to ensure that we save lives and protect the NHS,” he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge programme.
"Instead of press conferences and posturing what we need is action to save people's lives.
“If Labour are serious about the NHS and about this disease, then here they would be calling on Andy Burnham and inviting Andy Burnham to accept the need for these measures.”
Speaking shortly afterwards, Mr Burnham returned fire by accusing the Prime Minister of exaggerating the severity of the crisis in Manchester.
Ahead of a crunch meeting with Downing Street on Saturday afternoon, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: "It's a serious situation but I don't think it was the situation that was described by the Prime Minister on Friday evening. I think it was an exaggeration of the position that we're in.
"Of course it's a matter of concern, and we watch the figures very closely indeed, but the figures have been falling in Manchester itself in the last few days, across Greater Manchester up slightly but certainly not doubling every nine days."
His comments were swiftly rebuked by health minister Nadine Dorries, who wrote on Twitter: “Sad to hear Andy Burnham on Marr misrepresenting regions with low rates of infection right now.
“The rate in Cornwall, Devon and other areas is circa 30+ per 100.000. In Manchester it’s circa 400+ per 100,000.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, also appeared to undermine Mr Burnham when she stated that the figures in Manchester were “terrifying” and showed the city was facing a “public health emergency”.
Asked if Manchester should now accept tier three restrictions, she added: “It’s a yes but my preference is for Labour’s call for a national circuit breaker.
“We think in the long run that will be more effective, more quickly than this constant patchwork of, as you say, checking in and then never being able to check out of local restrictions that people don’t understand and where already we can see they are not proving effective.”
Her comments were echoed by shadow Cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves, who said that repeated circuit breaks may be required to get the virus under control.
“If that is what is needed then that is the approach that has to be taken,” she added.
However, Mr Gove insisted that a national circuit breaker was not being considered at the moment, adding that it would be an “error to try to impose on every part of the country the same level of restriction when we know that the disease is spreading more intensively and quicker in some parts of the country."
Pressed on whether the measure could be taken in the future, he said: "We always look at how the disease spreads and we will take whatever steps are necessary to maintain public health.
"Kate and the Labour Party are arguing the blanket restrictions across the country at the moment and the spread and nature of the disease does not merit that at the moment."
But Sir Jeremy Farrar, a Government scientific adviser, disagreed with Mr Gove’s assessment, arguing that a circuit breaker would push the epidemic back to the levels seen in early to mid-September.
“In my view the best time to have done this would have been the 20 september as Sage advised,” he continued.
“That wasn’t decided upon then. The second best time to do this is now and the worst time to do this is the end of November when things will have got considerably worse.”
In a clear swipe at the Government's three-tiered approach to local lockdowns, Sir Jeremy also suggested that political infighting between ministers and local leaders was harming efforts to suppress the virus.
"We’ve got to get through the next three to six months as a country in a cohesive way," he said. "And we’re much better doing that together rather than breaking off into regional north-south or political divides. Divided countries tend not to deal well with epidemics, we’ve seen that throughout history.
"Cohesive joined up countries which share the same agenda, that’s where you make progress in public health."
He also warned that infection rates were now likely to be running at 50,000 per day, adding that the reasonable worst-case scenario outlined by Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance had now been “broached.”
“It is worse than the scenario that Sage advised on. That is the situation we are in today.”