Pubs and restaurants in swathes of the north of England could face restrictions within days in a scramble to stem an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, after Nicola Sturgeon announced a nationwide crackdown on indoor drinking in Scotland.
UK ministers will meet again on Thursday to try to come to a resolution, along with local leaders, on what harsher measures should be imposed, following what Sturgeon described as “short, sharp action” for Scotland.
“It’s no surprise we are considering measures at the tougher end,” one Whitehall source said, adding that public health officials were alarmed by a 60% rise in hospital admissions in the north-east in recent days. “We know hospitality is a big factor, especially the comings-and-goings in fast food or in bars.”
Local leaders have asked the government to ensure more emergency financial support for England’s beleaguered hospitality industry as more restrictions loom. It is understood that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has been resistant to regionalised financial support packages for businesses but that is now under consideration.
Labour published figures on Wednesday showing that 19 out of 20 areas in England under restrictions for two months had reported increasing infection rates.
Watch: Johnson expected to order pubs to shut in north of England
Speaking at prime minister’s questions, Keir Starmer said: “The prime minister really needs to understand that local communities are angry and frustrated. So will he level with the people of Bury, Burnley and Bolton and tell them: what does he think the central problem is that’s causing this?
“The prime minister can’t explain why an area goes into restrictions. He can’t explain what the different restrictions are, and he can’t explain how restrictions end. This is getting ridiculous. It’s obvious that something‘s gone wrong here, so what’s the prime minister going to do about it?”
Nottinghamshire is set to be the latest area to face stringent restrictions on social gatherings, which could be announced as soon as Thursday. The city is expected to be put under similar measures as the north-east of England.
Nottingham city council’s director of public health, Alison Challenger, described the surge in infections in the area as “extremely worrying” and confirmed that new rules were expected imminently.
David Mellen, the council’s leader, said that because local lockdown measures in other parts of the country, such as Manchester, had not brought infections down, different tactics to control outbreaks needed to be put in place.
“The last time we did lockdown effectively it did bring the virus under control but at that point schools weren’t open, universities weren’t open, people couldn’t go to pubs and restaurants. We have to decide what can be closed down,” said Mellen.
On Wednesday the government said there had been a further 14,162 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK and 70 people had died.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, chaired a “gold command” meetingon Wednesday morning.
Plans to release a tiered “traffic light”-style lockdown model are now being held until a decision can be reached on how to manage the significant surge in the north-west and north-east.
However, there remain significantly different views among senior ministers about the criteria for imposing the most stringent lockdown measures and whether they should include the full closure of shops and restaurants, time-limited restrictions or targeted curbs.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said leaders across the north of England would strongly oppose any restrictions that were not backed with a “substantial support package” for councils, businesses and residents.
A Guardian analysis of official figures shows a wide disparity in the resurgence of coronavirus across the country, with England’s poorest communities nearly four times as likely to face lockdown restrictions as the wealthiest areas.
“There is a very difficult winter now ahead of us. Time is running out to get these things right,” Burnham said. “It is now urgent that we get the support in place, otherwise the north-south divide will be widened. The north will be under restrictions for the winter which will, in the end, level us down, not up.”
A Treasury source said Sunak was looking at further support options. “We’ve shown we will act at pace and scale when it’s been needed and we will continue to provide support where it is needed,” the source said.
The threat of a significant Conservative rebellion is playing on the minds of No 10 as ministers consider what tougher restrictions could be acceptable. “If we were to close pubs and restaurants, how do we think Tory MPs are going to react?” one Whitehall source said.
Labour has said Boris Johnson must set out the scientific evidence behind the introduction of further lockdown measures in England, with Starmer hinting that his party could vote against implementing the 10pm hospitality curfew if the government fails to provide further evidence.
The former minister Steve Baker said he and other Conservative MPs would vote against the curfew when the measure comes before parliament.
On Wednesday afternoon the scheduled vote was removed from the House of Commons’ agenda for next Monday, suggesting the government has pulled the vote as it works to contain the rebellion.
Baker, one of the key critics of the government’s lockdown measures, said he wanted to work to come to a different settlement with the government, and the curfew was “badly evidenced and appears to be counterproductive”.
Figures released by Labour on Wednesday showed:
Bolton’s infection rate has increased by almost 13 times, from 20 per 100,000 people to 255.
Burnley’s infection rate has risen from 21 per 100,000 people to 434.
Bury’s infection rate is 266 per 100,000 people, up from 20.
No 10 said all current restrictions were under constant review. “We are looking at all the data, from the rising number of infections to the numbers admitted to hospital and to intensive care. If and when we feel further action is required then we will act,” Johnson’s spokesman said.
Asked why the government was not already taking more action, the spokesman said: “We keep the data under constant review and we continue to receive advice from scientific and medical experts, and should we feel that it is necessary to make further interventions then we will do so.”
Watch: UK coronavirus cases rising - why are deaths still low?
In Holyrood, Sturgeon said the new measures were intended to be a “short, sharp action to arrest a worrying increase in infection” and she hoped they would help keep schools and businesses open over the winter.
For 16 days from Friday at 6pm, all pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes must operate on a daytime-only basis, from 6am to 6pm, and for the service of food and non-alcoholic drinks only. They can continue to serve alcohol outdoors up to the current curfew of 10pm.
In five health board areas that are causing greatest concern – Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire, the Lothians, Ayrshire and Arran and Forth Valley – all licensed premises, with the exception of hotels for residents, must close indoors and outdoors, although takeaways will be permitted. Cafes that do not have an alcohol licence will be able to stay open until 6pm.