Boris Johnson’s plans to introduce tough new lockdown measures in England were going down to the wire on Saturday as discussions between No 10 and local leaders continued late into the evening.
Millions of people in the Midlands and the North are facing travel bans and the shutting of pubs, with local communities tasked with enforcing the Test and Trace programme.
People could face fines if they travel between high and lower risk areas or breach orders to self-isolate.
The deployment of the ‘Covid vigilantes’ is an effective admission from Downing Street that the national programme has failed.
Millions of people in the Midlands and the North are facing travel bans and the shutting of pubs, with local communities tasked with enforcing the Test and Trace programme
The complications could also lead to the staggered implementation of different measures, possibly on a postcode-by-postcode basis.
As an incentive for local leaders to co-operate, the Treasury will offer financial inducements – dubbed ‘cash for crackdowns’.
Whitty’s ‘dodgy dossier’ on virus spread in pubs
By Stephen Adams, medical editor for the Mail On Sunday
Thousands of pubs across northern England could be closed on the basis of what critics claim is a ‘dodgy dossier’ of evidence presented by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.
On Thursday Professor Whitty showed MPs data which purported to show that 33 per cent of infections may be occurring in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants.
He proceeded to tell them that a ‘significant proportion’ of exposure to the virus was taking place in such establishments.
But the conclusions were drawn from a very small sample which has since been criticised as being ‘incredibly thin’ data and a ‘dodgy dossier’. It came from an ‘enhanced contact tracing exercise’ which asked where infected people told tracers who they had met, and where. This ‘early analysis’ has not been published yet.
If two infected people both told tracers they had been to a venue in the last week, it was seen as an indication – but not proof – that the virus might have been passed between them there. However, in the methodology used, the two people need not have been to the venue at the same time.
In the study there were 98 occasions when two or more people told contact tracers they had been to the same pub, representing 22 per cent of potential incidents of exposure. On a further 67 occasions, meetings between two infected people took place in cafes, bars and restaurants, representing an additional 11 per cent of exposure incidents.
The results appear to contradict those from many other studies, including NHS Test and Trace data, which indicate the majority of infections take place within the home.
Test and Trace figures indicate that less than five per cent of transmissions take place in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants.
Ministers are considering much tighter restrictions on hospitality venues in areas with high infection rates, which could see thousands of pubs across the north of England forced to close in the coming days.
One Conservative MP said: ‘It is clear that the data to justify further action is incredibly thin.’
Christopher Snowden, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: ‘A dodgy dossier passed around by Chris Whitty in private is simply not good enough.’
Mr Johnson will set out the details of a new three-tier local lockdown system in a speech to MPs tomorrow.
The Prime Minister’s adviser, Sir Eddie Lister, spent Saturday in discussions with local leaders in the areas concerned. One source said the negotiations centred on the severity of the measures.
It was suggested that in Merseyside, one of the worst-affected places – with 600 cases per 100,000, all pubs and bars would be closed as part of ‘Tier 3’ measures, but that restaurants would be allowed to remain open.
This led to strained exchanges about the definition of a restaurant, as opposed to a pub which serves food.
The leaders are being offered incentives by No 10 to co-operate with the plans, which could be enacted as early as Wednesday.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has also been urging the Prime Minister to show ‘restraint’ over the new lockdown.
The pair held a meeting on Thursday in Downing Street, during which Mr Sunak is said to have ‘forensically’ picked apart the data provided by the Government’s scientists to justify a hard lockdown.
During the exchange, which continued late into the evening, Mr Sunak – a ‘hawk’ who is increasingly concerned about the economic damage being wrought by Covid rules – pointed out that calls to shut down hospitality venues were based on flawed and patchy information from just 98 pubs and 67 cafes and restaurants.
It came as 15,166 new positive cases were recorded on Saturday in the UK, up from 13,864 on Friday.
The number of deaths rose by 81 to 42,760. Last Sunday the daily figure reached a 22,961 high after a glitch in the way tests were calculated meant nearly 16,000 unaccounted-for positive tests were added to that day’s total.
Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, warned that many will face ‘severe hardship’ under the Government’s financial support package for businesses forced to close.
During a press conference with other leaders from the North, Mr Burnham said the measures unveiled by Mr Sunak on Friday were ‘insufficient’ and that he had been told by No 10 that the proposed help was ‘non-negotiable’.
Mr Burnham and Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram, together with mayors from Sheffield and North of Tyne, have written to MPs in northern England asking them to call for a separate vote on the Chancellor’s latest package – and to reject it.
A ‘trade union’ of northern Conservative MPs has been launched to put pressure on the Government to deliver on its ‘levelling up’ promises to the region.
Some 27 Tory MPs have signed up to the Northern Research Group, which is led by former Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry.
Last night anti-lockdown MPs said the message Ministers have been keen to convey is that they are ‘optimistic’ about getting a vaccine, with the plan to resume normal life dependent on rolling it out to the most vulnerable – something they estimate will take ‘six months’.
It was suggested that in Merseyside (above, Liverpool city centre) all pubs and bars would be closed as part of ‘Tier 3’ measures, but that restaurants would be allowed to remain open
Mr Burnham has written to MPs in northern England asking them to call for a separate vote on the Chancellor’s latest package – and to reject it
The optimistic view is this rollout can be done by Easter, and the pessimistic view is it will take until next summer, one Tory MP said.
‘The strategy is two-fold – suppress the virus until a vaccine, and protect the NHS,’ an MP said. ‘The economy cannot be preserved in aspic [until a vaccine comes].’
Soaring hospitalisation figures
The rise in Britons being treated with coronavirus in hospital is being driven in part by them catching it on the wards, the latest available figures indicate.
The number of hospital cases rose from 2,396 to 3,660 – an increase of 52 per cent – between September 30 and October 7.
But separate statistics show almost one in five with the virus in hospital tested positive seven days or more after admission – implying they caught it there.
The findings suggest Covid-19 hospitalisations caused by community outbreaks may not be growing as fast as some fear.
Rises in admissions have been greatest in North West England, say health officials. But the total number of virus patients in UK hospitals is still a fraction of the peak figure of 19,849 in April.
The Government has said it will put the new lockdown measures to Parliament this week.
A vote on the 10pm curfew is already scheduled for Tuesday, although Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg is expected to make a statement to the House tomorrow, changing the planned votes for the week.
Conservative backbenchers unhappy with the lockdown policies are not planning to stage a rebellion, however.
Several MPs said Sir Keir Starmer’s decision not to vote against the Government on the curfew means most Conservatives will not break ranks in the face of a likely Government victory.
Mr Sunak’s meeting with Mr Johnson came after Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty told MPs from the North and the Midlands that a ‘significant proportion’ of exposure to coronavirus was due to the hospitality sector, arguing 32 per cent of transmissions may be occurring in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants, and only 2.6 per cent in the home.
However, NHS Test and Trace figures reveal that 75.3 per cent of transmissions take place at home and only 5.5 per cent happen in pubs, restaurants and churches.
Professor Whitty’s deputy, Jonathan Van-Tam, also told MPs last week that ‘the 10pm curfew is better than 2am – but not as good as 6pm’.
One MP said: ‘It was clear that some things just aren’t his problem. It is not his problem to consider the viability of restaurants. We are hitting hospitality because we can, because we can’t shut schools.’