The government has been unable yet to agree whether Greater Manchester and Lancashire should go into the highest level of lockdown restrictions, Matt Hancock has said, following a morning of stormy discussions with MPs and local leaders.
Making a statement to the Commons, the health secretary also said that, as well as London, a series of other areas, including Essex, Barrow-in-Furness, York and parts of Derbyshire, would move from the lowest of the three levels to the middle tier, under which indoor household mixing is banned.
But following a reportedly stormy briefing between Lancashire MPs and Jo Churchill, a junior health minister, and the open opposition of the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, neither region is yet moving to the “very high” tier.
Hancock told MPs that the Liverpool city region was so far the only English area at this level, saying: “In other areas currently in the second tier, where discussions are ongoing, no further decisions have yet been made, but we need to make rapid progress.”
The statement received a sometimes hostile response from both Conservative and Labour MPs, with Lucy Powell, the Labour MP for Manchester Central, saying there was “unanimous fury” locally about the government’s actions.
The delay follows complaints from MPs, and from Burnham, that a move to the third tier would need more financial support for workers and businesses affected, and worries about the efficacy of the measures.
Following the announcement that London would move into the medium tier, Hancock said this would happen at a minute past midnight on Saturday. He also said that Essex, as well as Elmbridge, part of Surrey, would do the same.
Additionally moving from the lowest to the middle tier are Barrow-in-Furness, York, North East Derbyshire, and two other parts of Derbyshire: Erewash and Chesterfield.
The renewed spread of the virus was “grave and serious” across Europe, and the UK had recorded the highest figure for daily deaths since early June, Hancock told MPs.
“Coronavirus is deadly, and it is now spreading exponentially in the UK,” he said. “Delayed action means more deaths from Covid, it means more non-Covid deaths and it means more economic pain later.”
Saying the restrictions were “as targeted as feasibly possible”, Hancock said: “I hate the fact that we have to bring them in, but it is essential that we do bring them in.” He added: “When the virus is moving fast we cannot stay still.”
Responding for Labour, the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said that while he supported the move of the areas into the second tier, Hancock had to work with local leaders, and offer more financial support or else “more people will fall into poverty and destitution”.
Powell told Hancock that MPs around Greater Manchester were aghast after their briefing with another junior health minister, Helen Whately: “There was unanimous fury on that call about the process, about the evidence base, and about the economic support packages on the table. We want action, but it has to be the right action. We’ve lived in tier 2 now for nearly three months, and it has not worked.”
She added: “It’s not good enough that meaningful conversations only began this morning.”
Hancock also faced hostility from a number of his own MPs. The South Dorset MP, Richard Drax, said repeatedly lockdowns were “destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions of people”, adding: “We need a plan B, and I’d be grateful if my right honourable friend could tell the house what that is.”
Greg Clark, the former cabinet minister who now chairs the Commons science committee, said the process of moving areas between tiers was too opaque: “It’s concerning that there wasn’t anything in the statement from the secretary of state about the criteria for exiting these measures.”
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