Minister warns not to expect normal Christmas as millions more face restrictions

By Shaun Connolly and Harriet Line, PA Political Staff
·5-min read

Most people should expect Christmas this year to be different from previous ones due to the coronavirus outbreak, a Cabinet minister has said.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay, speaking as sweeping new restrictions were imposed on millions more people in different parts of Britain, said he hoped families could be together over the festive season.

Greater Manchester moved into the highest alert level, Tier 3, on Friday morning, and Wales was introducing its two-week “firebreak” lockdown at 6pm.

Coventry, Stoke and Slough will enter Tier 2 on Saturday, while talks between Westminster and civic leaders in Nottingham over possible Tier 3 restrictions were continuing on Friday.

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Asked how he would describe the chances of people having a “normal Christmas” despite Covid-19 restrictions, Mr Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I would describe it as a shared endeavour for all of us.

“All of us want to be able to enjoy Christmas with our families. And that’s why there is a common purpose here to get the virus down.”

Referring to Christmas, Mr Barclay said: “I think few people expect it to be exactly as it would normally because we will be living with this virus for some time.

“And the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser have been very clear on that.

“But, your point really was about the ability of families to spend Christmas together – that is something we all hope to be in a position to do.”

Asked about an estimated three million freelance and self-employed people who have “fallen through the cracks” and been unable to claim on Government support schemes, Mr Barclay told BBC Breakfast there is a balance between the speed of introducing programmes and controls to protect against fraud.

He said: “In terms of the ‘excluded’ campaign, which I know is an extremely contentious issue, if you look at the National Audit Office (NAO) report published today, what the NAO, which is independent of Government, says is that the Government deserves credit for the speed at which we brought forward schemes.

“But there is a balance between that speed and ensuring we have the right safeguards in place to prevent risk of fraud. It’s about getting that balance right.

“It’s not if someone doesn’t qualify for one scheme, they don’t get any support at all, because there is a comprehensive package of measures, business grants, tax deferrals, business rate loans, mortgage holidays, ensuring people who couldn’t afford their rent were protected.”

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Pressed on whether the Government would reconsider its position on free school meals during holidays after sharp criticism from footballer Marcus Rashford, Mr Barclay said: “We keep all issues under review.”

Labour has called on the Government to clear up “confusion” on new plans to help businesses deal with coronavirus restrictions.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak needs to clarify how long elements of the package will be in place for, said shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said.

She told the BBC: “The Chancellor suggested that a number of these measures will apply, he stated, for six months.

“He has set out that approach for some elements of his plan, but there is a lot of confusion around other elements, whether they’re short-term, long-term, what exactly the score is.”

Gaps in the Government’s winter economy plan mean some workers have been excluded from support, Ms Dodds said.

She said people who have savings are “knocked out of support”.

On the gaps in support, she said: “We didn’t really see any recognition of that, I think that’s very problematic.

“If people got a little bit of savings, which a lot of self-employed people do have, then they get knocked out of that support very quickly, they have to wait for five weeks.

“The Chancellor could’ve fixed that yesterday (Thursday) but he decided not to do that unfortunately.”

Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Under Tier 3 measures in Greater Manchester, pubs and bars will be closed, unless they are serving substantial meals, for a 28-day period, along with casinos, bingo halls and bookies.

Mr Sunak announced an emergency multibillion-pound bailout on Thursday aimed at supporting workers and firms through the second coronavirus wave.

The Job Support Scheme, which replaces the current furlough system from November 1, will be made more generous in an effort to persuade firms to keep staff in work.

There will also be grants of up to £2,100 a month available for firms in Tier 2 areas of England, aimed at helping hospitality and leisure venues which have seen takings plummet due to restrictions on households mixing.

The package could cost the Exchequer around £13 billion over six months.

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It came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that the Test and Trace system, which he previously promised would be “world-beating”, needs to be improved.

He said turnaround times for tests need to be faster, after it emerged that just one in seven people having a test at a centre get their result back in 24 hours.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, also said problems with the system could be “diminishing the effectiveness” and there is “room for improvement”.

A total of 101,494 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once in the week to October 14, according to the latest Test and Trace figures, the highest weekly figure since the system was launched in late May.

But just 59.6% of close contacts of people who tested positive were reached through the Test and Trace system, its worst performance yet.