Thursday, 8 October 2020

PM comes under pressure to impose UK-wide 'circuit-breaker' lock-down amid fears some hospitals will be swamped in 10 days


SAGE experts met today to demand Boris Johnson gets even tougher by imposing a nationwide 'circuit breaker' lockdown - despite the PM already facing a backlash from the North over plans to shut pubs and restaurants in hotspots.

Scientists are warning that coronavirus has a 'gun to the head' of the country as daily cases hit 17,540, with a health minister suggesting hospitals could be swamped in 10 days unless the government steps up its response. 

A swathe of the North is set to be plunged deeper into lockdown next week after the premier signed off a new 'traffic light' system of local curbs for England.  

The mechanism for classifying the harshest 'red' or 'Tier Three' zones are still unclear, but they are expected to cover Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle - three cities that have continued to see infection rises despite other restrictions

Hospitality businesses are set to be shut under the new measures, likely to be confirmed Monday and imposed from Wednesday, but shops, offices and schools will stay open.

 Ministers are still mulling the fate of hairdressers and leisure facilities - but Chancellor Rishi Sunak will bring forward a special furlough-style compensation scheme for workers and firms hammered by the curbs.

Conservative MPs and local leaders in the North have been venting fury about the government's stance, with former minister Jake Berry accusing the premier of being 'London-centric' and enjoying his sweeping emergency powers 'a little bit too much'. Politicians in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield raged at 'diktats announced without notice' and said ministers were treating the North like a 'petri dish for experimentation' while the South gets off lightly. 

But health minister Nadine Dorries warned those telling the government not to impose further curbs that otherwise hospital admissions will be 'at a critical stage' in 10 days' time. 

And MPs were reportedly told in a briefing led by Chief Medical Office Chris Whitty that 41 per cent of infected under-30s had contracted the virus it in a pub, bar, restaurant or cafe. Across all age groups a quarter of infections originated from those settings.

Mr Johnson is also coming under massive pressure from scientists to go further and impose a 'circuit breaker' lockdown similar to that dramatically announced by Nicola Sturgeon yesterday. For 16 days from tomorrow pubs and restaurants in Scotland are being banned from serving alcohol indoors and must close by 6pm. In large areas north of the border hospitality venues are being told to shut altogether.

The government's SAGE group was meeting this afternoon, with one member, Professor John Edmunds, saying beforehand that a short sharp shock was needed to 'stop the epidemic from getting out of control in the next few weeks or months and overwhelming the health service'.

'We are not that far away from that. I hate to be gloomy, but in the North of England now we are not that far away from the health service being stretched,' he told a Royal Society of Medicine webinar. 

Prof Edmunds denied scientists were 'holding a gun to the PM's head' on the restrictions. 'It's the virus holding a gun to the PM's head,' he said. 

There was a slight relief for Mr Johnson this afternoon as Keir Starmer backed off a confrontation over the blanket 10pm pubs curfew - which critics say is making matters worse - to get the plans through Parliament. The Labour leader said his MPs will not oppose the measure in a crunch vote next week, although he wants the policy reviewed.

As the coronavirus crisis escalated again today:

  • The UK today recorded 17,540 more infections and 77 deaths, with the number of people testing positive for the disease every day having nearly tripled in a fortnight; 
  • The leader of Nottingham council leader has voiced alarm at the delay in announcing tighter restrictions to control a surge in the area until the traffic light system is announced on Monday. Labour's David Mellen said he feared people would have a 'blow out' weekend in expectation of the crackdown; 
  • Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of sentencing thousands of businesses to 'death' by imposing a draconian shutdown of pubs and restaurants in Scotland;
  • Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick refused to cite scientific evidence for the 10pm pubs curfew, merely saying it was 'commonsensical'; 
  • Mr Jenrick hinted that the government could soon urge workers to wear masks in offices, saying the idea had 'benefits' and would be considered by the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty;
  • A leading scientist has voiced alarm at speculation people could be reinfected with coronavirus, saying that could mean the problem is around 'forever'; 

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