Coronavirus: Labour leader demands two to three week 'circuit breaker' lockdown over half-term

Tuesday 13th October 2020 23:30 BST

The Labour leader urged the prime minister to "act now" and "break the cycle" of COVID-19 infections, as he warned the country could soon "sleep walk into a long and bleak winter".

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey told Sky News his party would back Labour's call.

And Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford told Times Radio he was "very actively" considering a "short, sharp intervention" in the country and the Welsh government was "working hard at that detail" of a circuit break lockdown.

Northern Ireland is also weighing up a circuit break lockdown, Sky News has reported this week.

Sir Keir has said a "temporary set of clear and effective restrictions" could be introduced to coincide with the October half-term in order to "minimise disruption".

The Labour leader admitted a short lockdown would "require significant sacrifices across the country" and would mean people in England only being able to make essential travel and working from home if they can.

He also called for people to be banned from mixing with other households - apart from those who have formed a support bubble - and the shutting of all bars, pubs and restaurants.

But the Labour leader said it would not mean closing schools.

Speaking at a news conference, in response to Boris Johnson's announcement of a new three-tier system for localised coronavirus restrictions, Sir Keir said there was "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 added.

A short lockdown would "provide an opportunity to reset and to rectify some of the mistakes the government has made", Sir Keir said, as he demanded ministers "get a grip on testing and hand over track and trace to local authorities".

He urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to accompany a circuit-breaker lockdown with "extensive support for jobs, businesses and our local economies".

Two government advisers - Graham Medley, who sits on the SAGE committee, and Matt Keeling, a member of the scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling - have told the Financial Times that a two-week national lockdown could save between 3,000 and 107,000 deaths by January.

They said they plan to publish a joint paper modelling the effects of a 'circuit breaker'.

Sir Keir accused Mr Johnson's government of having "not got a credible plan to slow infections, it has lost control of the virus, and it's no longer following the scientific advice".

He highlighted how documents published on Monday night revealed the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had recommended a "circuit breaker" lockdown three weeks ago.

Minutes from a 21 September meeting of SAGE showed that a short period of lockdown was at the top of a list of measures to be considered for "immediate introduction".

Attendees of the meeting, held on Zoom, included the government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.

The minutes of the meeting were published very shortly after the prime minister had faced questions at a Downing Street news conference on Monday on his new three-tier strategy for localised restrictions.

In a direct message to Mr Johnson, Sir Keir said at his own news conference on Tuesday: "You know that the science backs this approach.

"You know that the restrictions you're introducing won't be enough. You know that a circuit-break is needed now to get this virus under control.

"You can't keep delaying this and come back to the House of Commons every few weeks with another plan that won't work.

"So act now, break the cycle. If you do you will have the votes in the House of Commons - I can assure you of that.

"You don't need to balance the needs of your party against the national interest."

The government will hold a gold command meeting on Wednesday to discuss whether Greater Manchester and Lancashire need to be reclassified into Tier 3 measures, Sky News has learned.

On Monday, the prime minister announced the Liverpool City Region would be the first part of England to be put into the new Tier 3 of localised restrictions.

Coming into force on Wednesday, this will see pubs and bars close - unless they can operate as restaurants - and people banned from socialising with other households both indoors and in private gardens.

Indoor gyms, fitness and dance studios, sports facilities, leisure centres, betting shops, adult gaming centres and casinos will close alongside pubs and bars in the region.

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Wedding receptions will not be permitted and people are being urged to avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK.

Sir Ed, the Liberal Democrat leader, told Sky News his party would "absolutely" back Sir Keir's call for a circuit breaker lockdown.

"That's the only way I think we can protect people's lives and livelihoods and get this virus back under control before Christmas," he said.

However, a senior government source branded Sir Keir "a shameless opportunist playing political games in the middle of a global pandemic".

Analysis: The biggest danger for the PM is having to follow Sir Keir's recommendation

By Sam Coates, deputy political editor

Sir Keir Starmer has made his biggest gamble of his leadership to date, today making Labour the party of the lockdown.

After days of arguments over what to do in the face of rising coronavirus cases - with a number of Labour MPs and mayors arguing to loosen certain restrictions - Sir Keir has today come down hard on the side of further restrictions.

He wants the prime minister to implement a two or three week "circuit break". His plan would resemble the original national lockdown from April but without schools closed and only applied to England.

The political attractions are clear. This allows Sir Keir to present himself as listening the scientists, after it emerged government advisory group SAGE recommended such a move three weeks ago.

He is also likely to be on the side of public opinion, after a YouGov poll last night found a plurality of the public believed that Boris Johnson didn't go far enough.

He has also satisfied the demands of those in his own party who worried Sir Keir was not creating sufficient dividing lines with the prime minister.

And he could also be proved right: if even Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty does not think the measures announced yesterday are enough, it seems likely something similar to the model outlined by the Labour leader will be foisted upon the nation in weeks.

Three weeks ago, when Mr Johnson announced the "rule of six" in response to SAGE's original, not a single MP in the Commons including Sir Keir urged him to go further.

This is because the most heated arguments amongst MPs were mainly amongst those who believe that the government is going too far.

The centre of gravity amongst MPs then did not appear to be in favour of going further, even to match Nicola Sturgeon's ban on household mixing.

The SAGE leak changed Sir Keir's approach. Labour argue that they never had the scientific advice to support a call for a tougher lockdown and now they do.

However this does not change the fundamentals of the debate. The reason Mr Johnson has not chosen to go for a full lockdown so far is because of the consequences on the economy of pressing pause again on millions of businesses and jobs.

Sir Keir could not put a price on his promise to compensate everyone who loses out, but it would be high. He may reply that the cost of inaction may be higher, but that is not an argument currently believed in the Treasury. Yet there is only so long that Downing Street can resist this argument if case numbers climb ever higher.

The biggest danger for Mr Johnson will come if he has to follow Sir Keir's recommendation.

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