The British government on Tuesday faced calls to impose another national coronavirus lockdown following criticism that it had ignored the advice of experts three weeks ago for tougher restrictions to cut rising infections.
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer called for a 2-3 week “circuit break” lockdown to slow the rates, saying the government had “lost control” of the outbreak having ignored stringent measures suggested by scientific experts on September 21.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told lawmakers the government had not acted on most elements of a shortlist of possible virus interventions suggested by the scientific panel, including a national lockdown, because it had to consider the economic fallout alongside health impacts.
“We make decisions that are guided by the science, taking into account all of the different considerations that we need to look to,” he told MPs as they prepared to vote on the latest, more limited, set of measures unveiled by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday.
Johnson announced a three-tiered system categorising areas of England by rates of infection, to try to simplify a complex web of local restrictions.
The northwest city of Liverpool — the only place put into the highest category — will see a ban on household mixing and pub closures from Wednesday for at least four weeks.
However, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty — flanking Johnson at a Downing Street news conference Monday evening — warned he was “not confident” the measures could reverse an upward trend that has seen Covid-19 cases quadruple in the last three weeks.
Britain on Tuesday announced 143 further deaths of people testing positive for the virus, the first time the daily announced toll has exceeded 100 since July.
A further 17,234 positive tests were also announced.
Whitty urged local leaders in the most-affected areas to go further.
“I am not confident, and nor is anybody confident, that the tier three proposals for the highest rates… if we did the absolute base case, and nothing more, would be enough to get on top of it,” Whitty said.
“There’s a lot of flexibility in the tier three level for local authorities… so that they can do significantly more than the absolute base because the base will not be sufficient.”
London mayor Sadiq Khan warned that it was “inevitable” that the capital will pass a “trigger point” for further restrictions in the “next few days”.
– ‘Bleak winter’ –
Johnson’s announcement was further undermined by the emergence of the details of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advice.
Alongside the circuit-breaker measure, they had recommended closing bars, restaurants, cafés, gyms and personal services like hairdressers, banning different households from mixing in homes and switching all university and college tuition online.
However, the prime minister adopted only one of the five recommendations — urging people to work from home.
His spokesman said Tuesday that Sage itself advises considering the economic impact of any measures and associated harms, noting: “and that’s exactly what the prime” minister, the chancellor and colleagues did”.
“The interventions which we have made are having an effect,” he added.
Starmer slammed the prime minister, saying that another lockdown was an opportunity to “reset and to rectify some of the mistakes that the government has made.
“If we follow the science and break the circuit we can get this virus under control. If we don’t, we could sleepwalk into a long bleak winter,” he said.
Britain’s death toll of more than 43,000 is the worst in Europe and hospital admissions are now higher than when the national lockdown was introduced on March 23.