October 27, 2020

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Boris Johnson unveils three-tier Covid restrictions for England

A swathe of northern England could join the Liverpool city region under the highest level of restrictions, Boris Johnson indicated as he unveiled a new, three-tier Covid rules system for England.

Announcing the much-briefed new approach, which will divide local authorities into “local Covid alert levels”, listed as medium (tier 1), high (tier 2), and very high (tier 3), the prime minister told MPs he wanted to “simplify and standardise” rules while avoiding a new full lockdown.

“This is not how we want to live our lives, but this is the narrow path we have to tread between the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown and the massive human, and indeed economic cost of an uncontained epidemic,” he said.

Responding for Labour, Keir Starmer said that while there was clearly a need for action, he was “deeply sceptical” that Johnson had a cohesive plan in place to reduce infections and mitigate the economic impact.

The prime minister also came under fire from some of his own MPs, who expressed alarm at the potential impact of the new rules on pubs and businesses.

So far, Merseyside is the only place to move into tier 3 with pubs and bars closed, and a ban on mixing between households in almost all circumstances. The region has also agreed to close gyms, leisure centres, casinos, betting shops and adult gaming shops.

Lockdown map

Johnson indicated that if ministers could also reach deals with other local authorities, tier 3 measures would also be imposed on a series of other areas currently put into tier 2.

“Engagement with other leaders in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber is continuing,” Johnson said. “I know how difficult this is. They, like us, like everyone in this house, are grappling with very real dilemmas, but we cannot let the NHS fall over when lives are at stake.

“So let me repeat the offer that we’re making to those local authorities: work with us on these difficult but necessary measures in the areas that are rated very high, in return for more support for local test and trace, more funding for local enforcement, the offer of support form the armed forces, and the job support scheme, as announced by the chancellor.”

The full list of which areas are in which tier is expected by the end of Monday.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said he was pleased the government had agreed not to close pubs and bars in the region for now. But he warned “we could be in tier 3 at some point” and said he would keep pushing for adequate compensation for businesses and workers whose firms had to shut.

Along with Labour and Conservative MPs and council leaders in Greater Manchester, Burnham fought hard against being put into tier 3.

He said: “It’s mixing that spreads the disease and we don’t have evidence that hospitality is the main cause. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the closing of hospitality causes more mixing in terms of social gatherings. I know they haven’t got the evidence because we asked for it and they couldn’t produce it.”

Most of England will be on the lowest tier, keeping the national measures introduced last month including the maximum gathering size of six and 10pm closure for pubs and other hospitality businesses, Johnson said.

The “high” level (tier 2) is expected in the areas already with local lockdowns, and the hope is to standardise these. In this tier, people cannot mix indoors beyond their household or support bubble, but outdoor meetings would be subject to the rule of six, allowing households to mix.

The top level (tier 3), which will apply to the Liverpool city region, involves a baseline of restrictions, including no mixing between different households or support bubbles indoors or outdoors, except for public spaces such as parks, meaning friends can meet, for example, for a walk.

Pubs and bars must close unless they can operate as a restaurant, which involves serving proper meals, not just snacks, and any alcohol only coming with food.

People in this tier would also be advised against travel in and out of the area, unless it was needed, for example to take children to school.

On top of this, government and local authorities would discuss other measures, such as closing gyms, as is set to happen in the Liverpool area. But these extra measures would not include closing any shops, schools or universities.

In response to confusion over local rules in recent weeks, the Gov.uk website and Covid19 app will feature postcode checkers to establish local rules.

Johnson said there were some who thought restrictions should instead be eased, arguing that as well as “the bleak mathematics” of a high death toll, it would also damage the economy and the NHS.

Measures are due to be published in full on Monday. They will be debated and voted on in the Commons on Tuesday, and come into force on Wednesday. Restrictions in areas deemed “very high” would have a sunset clause, meaning they will lapse after four weeks if not renewed.

Starmer said no one should be “under any illusion about where this is heading, or the need for a decisive action”, adding: “The question today is whether the restrictions announced by the prime minister can bring the country back from the brink, whether they can regain control the virus and provide the support and confidence that local businesses and communities need.”

A number of Conservative MPs, including some from the 2019 intake, asked for the prime minister not to allow areas to linger too longer under the restrictions. Phillip Davies, the MP for Shipley warned against what he called “a constant blizzard of arbitrary rules which will only serve to collapse the economy and destroy businesses and jobs”.