Tough new restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic will cover 99% of England’s population from next week, with government scientists warning that there is little prospect of any real changes for possibly months to come.
On a sobering day that provoked fury from some MPs, the prime minister apologised for the heartache and frustration the sweeping measures would cause to up 55 million people placed in the highest two tiers, but warned that this was not the time for “taking our foot off the throat of the beast”.
In a Downing Street press briefing, the chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, underlined the size of the challenge still facing the country when he urged people to be cautious during the coming temporary relaxation of restrictions over Christmas.
Asked how the public should approach the brief festive respite, Whitty said: “Would I encourage someone to hug and kiss their elderly relatives? No I would not,” he said. “It’s not against the law. You can do it within the rules that are there – but it does not make sense, because you could be carrying the virus.”
He was backed by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who stressed the importance of following health rules such as ensuring good ventilation in buildings and maintaining distancing during family gatherings.
“Hugging elderly relatives is not something to go out and do,” Vallance said, prompting Whitty to chip in: “If you want them to survive to be hugged again.”
Both men also addressed growing questions about the data behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, urging patience until the full results were published in peer-reviewed journals. In a sign of the need to press on, the government has now asked the MHRA, the body that licenses vaccines in the UK, to start the approval process.
Much of northern England and the Midlands, as well as Kent, Bristol and Slough, are entering the top coronavirus restrictions tier, a move that has prompted concern from local leaders and businesses anxious about the social and economic impact of the rules.
Liverpool and London will be in tier 2, but Greater Manchester, which has been subject to restrictions of one kind or another since late July, will remain in tier 3 – meaning no socialising indoors, even in private gardens, a ban on travelling to other parts of the UK, and pubs and cafes only open for takeaways.
Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, said he understood the government’s reasoning but called for much more support for hard-hit businesses.
“Greater Manchester’s infection rate is reducing faster than any other part of the country but we have to accept that it is still significantly higher than the England average. What we believe is completely wrong is the government’s decision to provide no additional business support to areas in tier 3 than those in tiers 1 and 2,” Burnham said.
In total 23.3 million people, more than 41% of England’s population, will be in tier 3, while 32.2 million, more than 57%, will be in tier 2.
Boris Johnson said the allocation of tiers would be reviewed every 14 days from 16 December, suggesting mass testing could make households exempt from restrictions.
He said: “Now testing on this scale is untried, but in due course, if it works, where people test negative it may also be possible for families and communities to be released from certain restrictions even if their home area stays in tier 3. Your tier is not your destiny, every area has the means of escape.”
But both Vallance and Whitty struck a far more cautious note. Vallance said the tier 1 restrictions before the lockdown “really didn’t have an effect” on slowing the spread of the virus, and Whitty conceded it could be “some months to come, possibly in some weeks to come” that more places could drop down into the lowest tier.
It is unclear how widely such mass testing will be available. Local authorities will be able to apply to take part, and those selected will receive support, including logistics backup from the military. But full details of the scheme are not expected to be published until next week. A government spokesperson said 14,000 troops had been put on standby to help.
Scores of Conservative MPs are preparing to vote against the restrictions when they come to parliament next week, though they are also urging the government to publish a cost-benefit analysis of the measures.
Steve Baker, of the Tories’ Covid Recovery Group, which questions the logic for many of the restrictions, said: “The authoritarianism at work today is truly appalling.” He claimed it amounted to a continuation of the lockdown, which formally lifts next week.
The prime minister spoke of the businesses, including non-essential shops and hairdressers, that would be able to reopen.
The former Conservative minister Harriett Baldwin said she had supported the lockdown on the basis that it would buy time for the government to improve test and trace and develop a strategy for living with the virus.
She added: “There is no logic whatsoever in having a month of lockdown only for people to have to live under an even more severe set of restrictions afterwards. That’s why we must see the evidence, the data and the cost-benefit analysis – published in full and on time – so that we can assess whether or not the current strategy is working, and make sure we know if we are being asked to vote for something with an end date and which will explicitly save more lives than it costs.”
The government has promised to publish a full social and economic assessment of its decisions before next Tuesday’s vote.
Labour have not yet decided whether they will support the measures. Sir Keir Starmer is expected to receive a briefing on Monday from experts including Whitty, setting out the rationale for the new system.
Andrew Gwynne, the former Labour frontbencher who represents Denton and Reddish in Greater Manchester, said he was minded not to support the new regime. “I will never understand the logic of a tiering system that says it’s OK for many thousands to cram into a busy shopping centre in the run-up to Christmas, but small numbers from the same household are unable to sit responsibly at a table for a meal and a drink in a bar or restaurant.”
Many areas in the south of England have moved from tier 1, via the four-week nationwide lockdown, into the more stringent tier 2, prompting a furious response from local MPs who questioned how they could explain the situation to their constituents.
Business groups warned the tough rules would hit the economy hard. Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Ongoing restrictions in England will continue to have a devastating impact on businesses across the country. To weather a difficult winter ahead, greater support will be needed for the hardest hit firms, including those in town and city centres that will miss out on trade as employees continue to work from home.”