Boris Johnson has moved to replace England’s “stay at home” national lockdown with a new toughened tier system of restrictions to last until the end of March, curbs that were immediately condemned by the hospitality sector.
Tory MPs warned of the wider impact on health and livelihoods of the new Covid-19 restrictions, and the Treasury was forced to put aside a further £900m to help councils deal with the costs of fighting the pandemic.
The prime minister set out his new Covid-19 “winter plan” to MPs on Monday, outlining new regional curbs intended “to carry us safely to spring”, replacing the national lockdown that ends on December 2.
Mr Johnson told a press conference in Downing Street that he hoped “the vast majority” of vulnerable people could be vaccinated against coronavirus by Easter.
The plan, which is subject to MPs’ approval, will mean the reopening of non-essential shops in the run-up to Christmas across England, but tougher rules will lead to the closure of pubs and restaurants in the worst-affected tier-three areas, except for takeaways.
Shops, gyms, personal care, leisure companies and outdoor sports venues will be allowed to reopen across the country after midnight on December 2, while the “rule of six” will return for people meeting in outdoor public spaces.
Spectators will be permitted to return to outdoor sports venues, except in tier three. In tier one, stadiums will be allowed to run at 50 per cent capacity or 4,000 fans, whichever is smaller. In tier two, it will be 50 per cent capacity or 2,000 fans.
But England’s lockdown, which has been in place since November 5, will be replaced with a new three-tier system of restrictions with most of the country being placed into the top two tiers.
These have been strengthened compared with pre-lockdown tiers on the advice of government scientists, and Mr Johnson admitted that “more regions will fall, at least temporarily, into higher levels than before”.
Mark Harper, chair of the Tory Covid Recovery Group, said MPs were yet to be convinced that the new measures would “save more lives than they cost”. Some 70 Tory MPs wrote to Mr Johnson asking for an impact assessment of the new restrictions on non-Covid health conditions and livelihoods.
Mr Johnson’s move comes in spite of the fact that the virus is still spreading: the latest R number — how many people each infected person spreads the virus to, is between 1.0 and 1.1. However, Mr Johnson said the national lockdown had brought the virus under control.
The tier regime will be in place until March, with individual regional curbs to be reviewed every 14 days. Mr Johnson said the virus was coming under control, but “the hard truth is we are not there yet”.
Mr Johnson said new vaccines and testing meant “an escape route was in sight”. He added: “This is not a pandemic without end.” New rules for social gathering for Christmas are expected on Tuesday.
The prime minister stressed the importance of adhering to the new restrictions despite the positive news surrounding the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
“It will be a tough few months”, he said. He added that the development of vaccines had “unquestionably changed the logic and massively, massively improved our position but it is too early, far, far too early to be complacent for that”.
In tier one, people will be advised to minimise travel and work from home where possible, but business premises will be open. However, the “work from home” advice offers no respite for deserted city centres.
In tier two, people can buy a drink in a pub, provided it is accompanied by a substantial meal but, in tier three, pubs and restaurants can operate only as takeaways — and hotels will close.
Ministers will decide on the geographical application of the new policy on Thursday, having studied the latest infection data, along with factors such as the pressure on local hospitals and the age profile of infections.
The easing of the controversial 10pm curfew, allowing customers to finish their drinks after last orders is called and remain on the premises until 11pm, was cautiously welcomed by restaurant owners in particular, who said that it would allow them to fit in a second sitting.
But the hospitality industry, which has been under restrictive measures for most of the year, expressed outrage that pubs and restaurants would again bear the brunt of tougher rules.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said: “The additional restrictions will destroy our sector if they go ahead as proposed. Whilst the review of curfew is overdue, the relaxation of the 10pm curfew is meaningless if most pubs are rendered unviable or forced to close under tiers two and three.”
About two-thirds of the UK’s 47,000 pubs are “wet-led” businesses that sell primarily drinks rather than food, according to the association, putting them in a precarious position in tier two if they do not serve “substantial meals”.
“You’re going to come out of this lockdown and be in even worse restrictions than you were before,” said Mark Derry, executive chairman of Brasserie Bar Co, which runs bars and pubs in central London and the south.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said: “For many business owners this is beyond ignorance.”
Among the worst-hit regions of England — where the strengthened tier three is most likely to apply — are parts of the north-west, north-east and the West Midlands.
Mr Johnson said “a surge in testing” in tier three would help those areas to move to lower tiers.
Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, was hopeful that the capital would escape the most draconian restrictions on its extensive hospitality sector by remaining in tier two, but his allies admitted that was not certain.
Unlike the previous tier system, which led to ministers becoming engaged in protracted haggling with mayors over support packages, the new rules will apply uniformly across England.
“There will be no negotiations,” said an ally of Mr Johnson.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor, recently announced an extension of the furlough scheme until March to help businesses and individuals cope with extended restrictions.
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