Boris Johnson faced fresh pressure to consider a tighter national lockdown in the face of figures suggesting local measures to contain the spread of coronavirus were not working.
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Government’s scientific advisory panel who specialises in disease outbreaks, recommended a “circuit breaker” be considered on a national basis in a bid to slow the virus, rather than trying to reduce it at a later stage.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said 19 of the 20 areas subjected to local measures for two months had seen infection rates increase.
And Sir Keir questioned why constituencies such as Mr Johnson’s were spared extra curbs while northern seats with similar levels of coronavirus were hit with restrictions.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Semple – a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “perhaps a circuit breaker a couple of weeks ago would have been a really good idea”.
He added: “It’s always easier to reduce an outbreak at the earlier stage than to let it run and then try to reduce it at a later stage.
“So, yes, circuit breakers are certainly something we should be thinking about on a national basis.”
According to the Government’s coronavirus dashboard, there were 2,783 patients with Covid-19 in hospitals in England and 349 patients on ventilators as of Tuesday.
The number of those admitted to English hospitals on Sunday – the most recent day for which the figures are available – was 478, almost double the figure seven days previously.
The figures for hospital admissions and patients on ventilators in England are the highest since June.
Case numbers have risen sharply in recent weeks, with 14,542 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Tuesday. A fortnight ago, on September 22, there were 4,926 cases recorded.
Labour leader Sir Keir questioned the way local restrictions had been introduced after colleague Jonathan Ashworth suggested there was a “suspicion” of “political interference” in favour of Tory heartlands.
Sir Keir said: “In the Prime Minister’s own local authority Hillingdon, today there are 62 cases per 100,000 yet no local restrictions. But in 20 local areas across England, restrictions were imposed when infection rates were much lower.
“In Kirklees it was just 29 per 100,000.”
Mr Johnson hinted that tougher measures could be needed in the capital and the Midlands.
“I wish I could pretend that everything was going to be rosy in the Midlands or indeed in London where, alas, we are also seeing infections rise,” he said, as he called for a “concerted national effort”.
Sir Keir said 19 of the 20 areas which were first subject to targeted restrictions had seen cases rise.
“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,” Sir Keir said.
“This is getting ridiculous.”
The Prime Minister insisted the Government would “continue with our package to suppress the virus not just nationally but locally and regionally as well”.
With Mr Johnson facing a potential Tory revolt over the 10pm curfew next week, Sir Keir called for him to publish the scientific evidence supporting the measure or commit to reviewing the rule.
In the latest sign of the damage the restrictions are doing to the hospitality industry, Greene King said it plans to cut around 800 jobs and shut dozens of pubs after trade slumped following the 10pm rule.
The rise in cases has led to warnings from leaders of northern cities that the local lockdown restrictions are confusing and even “counter-productive”, as they called for new powers to tackle the resurgence.
The leaders of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle City Councils – Judith Blake, Sir Richard Leese and Nick Forbes – joined Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson in writing to Health Secretary Matt Hancock to say they are “extremely concerned” about the rise in cases.
The Mayor of Liverpool argues for more powers to be given to local authorities to make local restriction rulings.
— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) October 7, 2020
“The existing restrictions are not working, confusing for the public and some, like the 10pm rule, are counter-productive,” the Labour politicians wrote.
They called for additional powers to punish those who break rules, for new restrictions to be developed by police, council and public health experts, and for a locally-controlled Test and Trace system.
“We want to be clear, however, that we do not support further economic lockdowns,” the leaders added.
Meanwhile, concerns were raised over the supply of vital materials used for Covid-19 testing following a supply chain problem with Roche.
The pharmaceutical giant said it had experienced a “very significant drop” in its processing capacity due to a problem with its Sussex distribution centre.
It has been reported that the shortage includes vital reagents, screening kits and swabs.