Boris Johnson tries to get Greater Manchester to accept tougher Covid restrictions

Boris Johnson has attempted to strong-arm Greater Manchester into accepting tougher Covid restrictions without providing extra money to protect businesses, by claiming that every day of delay would mean “more people will die”.

In a Downing Street press conference, the prime minister reiterated his threat to impose the tier 3 lockdown if an agreement could not be reached this weekend – and dismissed the idea of a short national “circuit break” to help bring down infection rates.

But Johnson appeared to be at odds once again with his chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who confirmed that government experts had pressed for a short nationwide shutdown – and said this measure would work any time.

This is also the preferred option of many northern leaders and the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, who has accused ministers of treating the region as a “sacrificial lamb”.

On Friday, Britain’s largest teaching union, the National Education Union (NEU), also urged a two-week half-term circuit break to help the government get control of the test, track and trace system.

Johnson and Vallance were giving a press conference in Downing Street as the prime minister sought to reassure the public that his tiered system of local restrictions, announced on Monday, was the right approach to containing the second wave of the virus.

Official figures showed there were 15,650 new cases on Friday, which was more than 3,000 below Thursday’s total of 18,980.

There were 136 deaths – the fourth successive day when the figure rose above 130.

But divisions between ministers and government scientists were highlighted once again when Vallance confirmed that he and other experts had recommended the two-week circuit breaker.

The strategy has been backed by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, who this week accused Johnson of failing to “follow the science”.

Explaining the decision to reject the scientific advice, Johnson said: “That’s the trade-off. It’s incredibly difficult, we think the local approach is the best one for now, that’s why we’re pushing so hard for it.”

He also pointed to wide variations in infection rates between regions.

“I don’t think it makes sense to be locking down the whole country when there’s such a difference in the infection rates across the UK.” But he repeatedly refused to rule out taking more draconian measures in the coming days.

He spoke after more than a million people in Lancashire were brought under tier three rules on Friday – the highest level of curbs.

However, local leaders made clear they had only reluctantly agreed a deal with the government, which included a financial support package. The new rules are due to take effect at midnight.

Announcing the deal, the government said it had promised to give Lancashire “a support package worth £12m” plus an unspecified package for “business support”.

But Mohammed Iqbal, the leader of Pendle council, said the actual figure was £42m, accusing the government of trying to hide the true amount “because they think Manchester and Liverpool and everyone else will be queueing up for it too”.

With London moving into tier 2 on Friday evening, as agreed with city mayor Sadiq Khan, over half the population of England will be living in areas classed as “high risk” or “very high risk” under the government’s three-tier system, equivalent to 28.4 million people.

Burnham and other Greater Manchester leaders have so far refused to cooperate with a plan to place their region in the toughest, tier 3 measures, however, demanding more support for workers, and funding for locally-led test and trace.

At a press conference on Thursday, Burnhamaccused Johnson of wanting to make Manchester the “sacrificial lamb,” to avoid a full lockdown elsewhere.

Exhorting Burnham to cooperate, Johnson said cases had doubled in the past nine days in Greater Manchester, and at the present rate of growth, “in just over two weeks there will be more Covid patients in intensive care than at the peak of the first wave”.

Burnham and the Greater Manchester leaders watched Johnson’s statement live during a meeting to discuss their next steps.

One council boss said their resolve had not weakened.

They had studied the detail of Lancashire’s £42m deal but were “not impressed,” he said: “We have to stand firm. We have a cross-party consensus behind us and the public.”

Sean Fielding, the leader of Oldham council, questioned Johnson’s tactic of singling out Greater Manchester’s mayor.

“You’d expect him to criticise Andy Burnham and Labour council leaders, but the views he is criticising are shared by GM’s nine Tory MPs and the Bolton Tory leader. Doesn’t seem very smart for him to alienate them,” he said.

There remains a chasm between what Andy Burnham and Greater Manchester’s 10 leaders are demanding in return for accepting the imposition of tier 3, and what the government is offering.

The combined authority has modelled how much it would cost to compensate all of the businesses and workers affected by the measures.

“It will cost £62m per month to fund the difference between what they’ve offered and what we want,” said one leader. “I doubt they will give us that because even they aren’t convinced that it will be only for four weeks, despite what they say.”

They complained that government was still offering just £8 per head of population (about £22.4m for 2.8m people) for improved test and trace capacity and enforcement of restrictions, in addition to paying two-thirds of the salaries of hospitality workers.

Another senior Greater Manchester source said the region not only wanted more money but also clarity on the timescale of restrictions – “what the exit strategy is” – and also for “more confidence in the epidemiology when even Chris Whitty said he wasn’t at all confidence tier 3 would work”.

At the press conference, Vallance echoed Whitty’s warning that even the maximum tier 3 restrictions might not be enough to reduce the R, or reinfection rate, for coronavirus, below one, meaning cases decline rather than grow.

“As the chief medical officer said, tier 3 baseline conditions on their own almost certainly aren’t enough to get the R below one, but if you go up to higher levels in tier 3, then they should be enough, provided they are fully implemented, and we all stick to them.”

In an attempt to strike an upbeat note, Johnson highlighted progress in developing faster, saliva-based tests for Covid-19, and stressed that tier 3 areas of the country would have priority access to the new kits.

“Over the next few weeks we will start distributing and trialling these tests across the country. This will enable us to do quick turnaround tests on NHS and care home staff much more frequently. By testing more frequently and quickly than ever before, we can hope we can help prevent the virus entering and spreading through care homes,” he said. However, he stressed that the new system would take time to establish.

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