Starmer calls for short national lockdown to stop ‘sleepwalk into bleak winter’

By Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent
·6-min read

Sir Keir Starmer has called on Boris Johnson to impose a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown across England to bring the coronavirus resurgence under control.

The Labour leader heaped pressure on to the Prime Minister on Tuesday after it emerged he dismissed a recommendation for the measure from Government scientists three weeks ago.

In his most dramatic intervention to date, Sir Keir said a two to three-week national lockdown over half term was needed to improve test and trace and prevent a “sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter”.

He told a televised press conference that Mr Johnson was “no longer following the scientific advice” by proposing “far less stringent restrictions” than suggested by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

Sir Keir said: “There’s no longer time to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt. The Government’s plan simply isn’t working. Another course is needed.”

He said schools must stay open but that all pubs, bars and restaurants should be closed during the circuit-breaker, while firms are compensated so “no business loses out” in order to “break the cycle” of infection.

“If we don’t, we could sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter. That choice is now for the Prime Minister to make. I urge him to do so,” Sir Keir said.

HEALTH Coronavirus
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A senior Government source accused Sir Keir of being “a shameless opportunist playing political games in the middle of a global pandemic”.

“He says he wants a national lockdown but he’s refusing to back targeted restrictions in areas that need them most,” the source added.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth hit back, saying: “Labour is listening to the Government’s own scientists who have warned that the path the Prime Minister has taken will not work.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said his party also backed a circuit breaker, warning that “otherwise the cost to lives and livelihoods as well as to jobs in our communities may be too harsh to bear”.

And Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford told Times Radio he too he was considering a “short, sharp intervention” – but that there remained “some very practical things that we’ve all got to think about”.

Labour’s call came after documents published on Monday evening showed Sage delivered a series of more drastic recommendations than the new three-tier system Mr Johnson has proposed.

In the documents from September 21, the scientists also criticised the Government’s £12 billion test and trace system as only having a “marginal impact” on Covid-19 transmission.

Sir Keir said the national lockdown would “reverse” rising infection rates and allow ministers to “rectify” some of their mistakes by handing over test and trace to local authorities.

But he acknowledged it would “require significant sacrifices” including curbs on household mixing and a ban on all but essential work and travel.

Amid increasing unrest on the Tory backbenches, Sir Keir said Labour would support the Government in voting for the measure to stop him needing to “balance the needs of your party against the national interest”.

It comes as the UK recorded the highest daily death figure in four months, with a further 143 people dying within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday.

Meanwhile, MPs approved the Government’s three tier Covid alert level system for England, meaning the restrictions will come into force on Wednesday.

But parliamentary private secretary Chris Green, the MP for Bolton West, resigned over Mr Johnson’s lockdown proposals, warning that the “attempted cure is worse than the disease”.

Senior Tory Sir Bernard Jenkin said the local advice in his Harwich and North Essex constituency was that a “short, sharp, shock” would be the best way of tackling the pandemic.

The chairman of the Commons’ powerful Liaison Committee told Times Radio: “If we nipped it hard now, we would be well back to manageable levels before Christmas. If we leave it for another five or six weeks, then… the tail of the bell curve goes well into January.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the three-tiered system of local lockdowns was needed to prevent more severe restrictions and spiralling deaths as he opened the Commons debate.

“And in addition, then, harder economic measures would inevitably be needed to get it under control and needed for longer,” he said.

Covid-19 alert levels in England
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The Sage document, dated September 21, said a package of interventions was needed to reverse the “exponential” rise in cases.

The scientists set out interventions that should be considered for “immediate” introduction, including a short national “circuit-breaker” lockdown.

Nearly all university teaching moving online, banning household mixing and closure for all bars, restaurants, cafes and gyms were also suggested.

Downing Street issued a lengthy defence for not adopting the measures, saying the scientists agree that the economic impacts and harms of restrictions must also be considered.

Pressed on whether Mr Johnson was no longer following the science, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Government receives advice from a wide range of scientific experts and also from economists but it’s ultimately for ministers to make decisions.”

The spokesman insisted “robust and targeted” action was taken last month with the rule of six and the 10pm curfew, while the public was asked to work from home if they can.

The row came as No 10 warned regional leaders resisting entering the highest level of Mr Johnson’s restrictions that the Government has the power to “impose” the measures.

So far, only the Liverpool City Region has agreed to sign up to Tier 3 restrictions, banning household mixing indoors and closing pubs unless they can operate as restaurants.

The spokesman declined to say which areas in the north and Yorkshire and Humber that the Government still wants to accept the severest restrictions.

But he added: “The Government does have the ability to impose measures if it’s considered that’s what’s needed to reduce transmission, to safeguard the NHS and to save lives.”

Mr Johnson on Monday set out the new system in England which will see areas put into different categories labelled as medium, high or very high risk.

The medium level maintains current national restrictions, high-risk areas will see households banned from mixing indoors, and the third tier will see harsher restrictions including the closure of pubs – unless they can operate as a restaurant.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said England’s tiered system would “give an idea” of a similar scheme she is developing, which could come into effect when stricter measures are due to be eased on October 25.

Mr Drakeford said he was “deeply disappointed” that Mr Johnson had not imposed an outright ban on travel from “very high” alert areas and is considering whether to take further action – which could include effectively closing the border.

In Northern Ireland, regulations currently prevent mixing of households, with exceptions for those “bubbling” with another household, and up to six people from up to two households can meet outdoors in a private garden.