Rishi Sunak: New Covid lockdown would inflict terrible harm

Gordon Rayner
·5-min read
The Chancellor has said the country faces an 'economic emergency' - John Sibley/Reuters
The Chancellor has said the country faces an 'economic emergency' - John Sibley/Reuters

Rishi Sunak warned against "rushing to another lockdown" and made clear his opposition to a national "circuit-breaker" as he said the country faced an "economic emergency".

Ministers are braced for the announcement of a two-week lockdown – which they expect to be made a week on Friday if coronavirus infections continue to rise – after Boris Johnson told MPs: "I rule nothing out."

But the Chancellor described a temporary national lockdown as "a blunt instrument" on Wednesday, saying it would "cause needless damage to parts of our country where virus rates are low".

Mr Johnson is understood to be studying plans for a region-by-region "circuit-breaker" in England, beginning in the last week of the month, but the Prime Minister wants to give the new three-tier system a chance to bring infection rates down before making a final decision.

Greater Manchester is expected to join Liverpool in the highest tier on Thursday after ministers recommended the move to Mr Johnson on Wednesday night.

Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham said the move was "at no point" communicated to him during a government briefing and he accused the government of alerting the media to its plans before local leaders. 

Lancashire and the North-East could quickly follow, with Government sources saying London could be moved into the middle tier by Friday.

There were reports that university students could be put into lockdown for two weeks from December 8-22, with all teaching online, to enable them to return home for Christmas.

Another 19,724 people in the UK tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday, with 137 deaths.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, the president, reimposed a state of national emergency last used in July after his cabinet was told the nation faced a "health catastrophe". Mr Macron announced that a 9pm to 6am curfew would be enforced in a string of cities, including Paris, for up to six weeks.

Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, said he would ban people from high-risk areas in England from entering Wales from Friday, using police to enforce the rule, if Mr Johnson did not impose UK-wide travel restrictions.

Nicola Sturgeon said she could follow suit by imposing a similar ban on travel into Scotland, and advised Scots against travelling to English coronavirus hotspots, singling out the resort of Blackpool as being "associated with a large and growing number of Covid cases in Scotland".

Three-tier postcode tool
Three-tier postcode tool

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland's First Minister, imposed a four-week "circuit-breaker" lockdown. Pubs and restaurants will close, with schools shutting for two weeks.

Mr Johnson told Parliament he wanted to avoid "the misery of another national lockdown" of the sort recommended by his scientific advisers and is understood to have expressed concern about locking down areas such as the Isle of Wight, where infection rates are 36 times lower than in Liverpool. 

Mr Sunak, however, made it clear that a national "circuit-breaker" should be off the table entirely. He told MPs: "We must acknowledge the stark reality of the economic and social impacts of another national lockdown.

"The costs of doing that are not abstract – they are real. They can be counted in jobs lost, businesses closed and children's educations harmed; they can be measured in the permanent damage done to our economy, which will undermine our long-term ability to fund our NHS and our valued public services; and they can be measured in the increase in long-term health conditions that unemployment causes."

Mr Sunak said a two to three-week national lockdown of the kind suggested by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, on Tuesday would cause "a hit to businesses and jobs". He added that the three-tier regional approach "prevents rushing to another lockdown" under which the whole country would suffer, especially the parts in which virus rates were low.

A YouGov poll on Wednesday found that 68 per cent of the population supported a "circuit-breaker" lockdown, with just 20 per cent opposed. Mr Johnson has been warned by some Cabinet ministers, however, that he would need to have a clearly defined strategy for what the measure was intended to achieve.

Cabinet "hawks" – who argue for lighter-touch restrictions – have told Mr Johnson he must have "not only an exit strategy, but a strategy full stop". The hawks are led by Mr Sunak and Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, and also include Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary.

One minister said: "A national 'circuit-breaker' is a very crude tool … what [it] does is potentially displace the problem rather than remove it."

Another Government source said Mr Johnson would have to answer a number of questions, adding: "What would it be for? It's no use just delaying things – if you are buying time, what are you going to use that time for? You have to make it worth the hit to people's lives.

"If the infection rate doesn't come down after two weeks, you will come under pressure to extend it – which  could drag on and on." 

Are Covid-19 cases rising or falling in your area? All local authorities with lookup. Updates automatically
Are Covid-19 cases rising or falling in your area? All local authorities with lookup. Updates automatically

At a meeting of a Cabinet coronavirus sub-committee on Wednesday night, ministers from a ­number of departments pressed for more clarity on how areas would exit the higher lockdown tiers amid growing concerns that swathes of England could remain under severe restrictions for months.

According to insiders, discussions on whether London should progress to the second tier were also "moving rapidly".

Asked by Sir Keir about The Telegraph's report on Wednesday of Government sources putting the chances of a "circuit-breaker" at 80 per cent, Mr Johnson said: "I rule ­nothing out."

But he accused Sir Keir of opportunism, urging him to support current regional measures.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended a "circuit-breaker" three weeks ago. Members of Sage suggested on Wednesday that the Government may have "missed the boat" for a lockdown later this month because people needed time to plan, and imposing one just before Christmas might be more effective.