Boris Johnson has refused to rule out another national lockdown in England as he faces increasing pressure to put aside his regional approach to quashing coronavirus.
The UK prime minister, who has defended his current three-tiered system for localised restrictions, said he would “rule out nothing” on his COVID-19 response when pressed on the issue.
Facing opposition leader Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, who supports another two-to-three week lockdown, Johnson said the pandemic was “a good crisis” for the Labour Party to “exploit,” adding: “We see this as a national crisis we are going to turn around.”
“I rule out nothing in combating the virus,” Johnson continued as he went on to assure regional restrictions could work if “properly implemented”.
His comments at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday come just hours after Starmer addressed the nation to encourage a second lockdown.
In a statement, the opposition leader urged the PM to “act now and break the cycle” of increasing transmission across the country.
He said: “The government’s plan simply isn’t working. Another course is needed […]
“That’s why I am calling for a two-to-three week circuit break in England in line with SAGE’s recommendation.”
Back in parliament, Starmer honed in on this recommendation from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) — the government’s group of advisers — and why it hadn’t been followed.
He said the government had fallen “behind the curve again” as he told the prime minister to “keep up” with the trend.
“I know for someone who has been an opportunist all his life, this is difficult to understand,” Starmer snapped across the despatch box.
“But having read and considered the SAGE advice, I have concluded a circuit break is in the national interest.
“It is the failure of the prime minister’s strategy that means tougher measures are now unavoidable.
“That’s SAGE’s view.”
Johnson, meanwhile, continued to defend his localised strategy as he argued opportunism was “the name of the game” of the Labour Party.
He said: “The difference between this stage of the pandemic from March and April is that the disease is appearing much more strongly in parts of the country than in others.”
Comparing Liverpool, which has 676 cases per 100,000 people, to Cornwall, which has 33 cases per 100,000, he stressed the tiered approach was “the right way forward”.
“We want to put in the most stringent measures necessary in the places where the virus is surging in order to get it down where it is surging.
“That is the logical thing to do.”
Ahead of this midweek spar in Westminster, other regions around the UK made it clear they would be adopting their own approaches to the second wave of COVID-19.
Northern Ireland, which recorded another seven coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday, announced a four-week “circuit-breaker” to come into effect on Friday.
The new measures to be imposed will be similar to those seen in the first peak of the pandemic in March, but with a few changes.
They include closures to the hospitality sector — except for takeaways and deliveries — and further strict restrictions on social contact.
A limit on the number of people who can meet in a garden will be in effect, along with social bubbles being restricted to ten people from two households. Overnight stays will be banned.
People have also been told to work from home unless absolutely unable to do so, and non-essential travel has been advised against.
Unlike in March, places of worship and gyms for individual training will remain open.
Schools, meanwhile, will have their half-term breaks extended to two weeks instead of one — and will cover the Halloween period.
Announcing the new measures in the Assembly on Wednesday, First Minister Arlene Foster said a rise in COVID-19 cases was of “grave concern” as she assured the decision to lock down Northern Ireland was not taken lightly.
“We fully appreciate that this will be difficult and worrying news for a lot of people,” she said. “The executive has taken this decision because it is necessary, and we discussed the impacts in great detail.”
Northern Ireland is the first region of the UK to announce another March-like lockdown — and others may soon follow suit.
The government in Wales also revealed on Wednesday that it had been preparing plans for a similar circuit break across the region.
First Minister Mark Drakeford said “detailed planning” was underway to put such measures in place.
He told British media: “We want to act now in order to prevent the worst from happening, to give us a better chance of getting through the rest of the autumn and the winter, and if a circuit-breaker is the right way to do it, then that is what we will do.
“We’re very actively talking about and preparing for that, should it be necessary.”
Scotland has already implemented its toughened approach by closing hospitality venues — except for takeaways — in the central belt last week.
Cafes that do not serve alcohol have been allowed to remain open until 6PM.
In the rest of Scotland, pubs, restaurants and cafes have been banned from serving alcohol indoors, and can only open between 6AM and 6PM.
Anywhere serving alcohol outside of the central belt will be forced to adhere to a 10PM curfew introduced last month.
For England, in the meantime, Boris Johnson appears to want to continue with his three-tiered strategy to “avoid the misery” of another lockdown.
He said: “Let’s work together to keep kids in school that [Starmer] would now yank out […] keep our economy going […] keep jobs and livelihoods supported in this country.”
The UK is one of the world’s hardest-hit countries by COVID-19, having recorded 637,708 cases of the disease.
It also has the worst death toll in Europe, killing more than 43,000 people. On Tuesday, it recorded a further 143 deaths — the highest daily increase since June.