LONDON – Millions of Britons could be on the verge of new coronavirus restrictions, with Britain’s deputy chief medical officer warning the nation has reached a “tipping point” similar to the situation before the countrywide lockdown began in March.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will make a statement to lawmakers on Monday (Oct 12) amid expectations that a three-tier local lockdown system will be introduced across England.
Parts of northern England are expected to face the harshest curbs, which might include closures of some hospitality venues and, according to the Sun newspaper, a request not to travel outside local areas.
“We are at a tipping point similar to where we were in March; but we can prevent history repeating itself if we all act,” deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam, wrote in an op-ed on Sunday (Oct 11).
“This time it is different, as we are now are going into the colder, darker winter months.”
With huge variations in infection rates across the country, a localised approach remains the best way forward, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said on Sky News on Sunday, adding that no one wants to see blanket measures across Britain. He declined to comment on the specifics of Monday’s announcement.
Speaking on Times Radio, Mr Jenrick said on Sunday there would be no national lockdown.
Asked whether the new measures due on Monday would include rules on travel between parts of England, he said: “The rules and guidelines the prime minister will set out tomorrow will explain how we will treat travel between different places… but we’ve always been clear that essential travel for work, for education, for important life events needs to be preserved whenever we can.”
On a short national lockdown he said: “We have got absolutely no plan to do that.”
In anticipation of fresh curbs, the government last Friday laid out more economic support for workers in areas hit by local lockdowns, with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak pledging to pay two-thirds of the wages of employees in companies forced to close.
That same day, two major studies showed the virus has surged in Britain, with the Office for National Statistics saying the infection rate almost doubled in the week through Oct 1, and Imperial College London estimating there were around 45,000 new infections every day in the period between Sept 18 and Oct 5.
The Imperial College report, based on tests of 175,000 volunteers, identified an eightfold increase in infections in people over the age of 65 compared with the previous period from Aug 20 to Sept 8.
A poll from Ipsos MORI on Sunday showed the public largely supports restrictions, with seven in 10 Britons backing local lockdowns in areas where cases of coronavirus are on the rise.
The poll, based on interviews with close to 1,900 people on Oct 9-10, showed 63 per cent favour limiting social gatherings to no more than six people from two households. Six in 10 people backed banning all travel in and out of Britain.
The British public are more divided on closing all restaurants, pubs and bars, with 43 per cent in support and 37 per cent against. It was the same when survey respondents were asked about another complete nationwide lockdown, with 40 per cent against and 43 per cent for the measure.
Still, the government’s approach is coming under criticism from local lawmakers in the north of England, with Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham bemoaning a lack of communication from officials.
“To be called to a meeting with 10 Downing Street on a Friday evening, to be effectively presented with proposals that needed to be agreed over the weekend, I mean that isn’t adequate or acceptable consultation to me,” he said on Times Radio on Sunday.
“That is being railroaded into a position. It’s all come too late.”
The Sunday Times reported British mayors will be given more control over the coronavirus test-and-trace system as the government tries to secure their support. Under plans being discussed between Downing Street and mayors, ministers will empower town hall leaders to deploy new local volunteers to go from door to door and ask people to self-isolate, according to the newspaper.