By Danica Kirka and Pan Pylas,
London and seven other areas were shifted into Britain’s second-highest virus alert level on Thursday, as the government sought to slow an exponential rise in infection rates across the country. The move means millions will be barred from meeting with anyone from outside their households and will be asked to minimize travel.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that he recognized these restrictions are hard on individuals and businesses, but said tough decisions are needed now to keep people safe.
“Coronavirus is deadly and it’s now spreading exponentially in the U.K.,” Hancock said. “We must act to prevent more hospitalizations, more deaths and more economic damage.″
Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week introduced a three-tier regional approach to combating the coronavirus pandemic, with each tier bringing in progressively tighter restrictions. The government is trying to slow rising infection rates and prevent the National Health Service from being swamped with COVID-19 cases this winter while seeking to avoid a national lockdown that would ravage the U.K.’s struggling economy.
The opposition Labour Party’s spokesman on health issues, Jonathan Ashworth, described the measures as inadequate to stem the exponential growth of the virus. He reiterated calls for the government to implement the recommendations of its scientific advisers and impose a two- to three-week national lockdown, or “circuit break,″ arguing it could save thousands of lives.
After Johnson on Wednesday refused to rule out such a move, Ashworth asked Thursday what the government’s criteria were for taking such action.
“How many more hospital admissions? How much non-COVID care delayed? Dare I say, how many more deaths?″ Ashworth said. “Action is needed now.″
Hancock shrugged off the question, saying now was the time to work together.
“That is the best way to defeat this virus,” he said.
Britain already has Europe’s deadliest outbreak, with over 43,200 confirmed virus deaths.
The change for Londoners comes as millions of people in northern England are waiting to find out whether they will be placed under the government’s tightest COVID-19 restrictions, which the city of Liverpool already faces.
Hancock said discussions were continuing with Greater Manchester and Lancashire about moving those communities into the government’s highest risk tier. Local leaders, including members of Johnson’s Conservative Party, have opposed such measures unless financial support is given to their communities to limit the damage to businesses and individuals.
The government held a conference call with officials from Greater Manchester on Thursday amid questions about whether the region of 2.8 million people would be classified as “very high risk,” which requires further restrictions such as closing bars.
Lucy Powell, a Labour lawmaker from Manchester, said there was “unanimous fury” on that call.
“We want action but it has to be the right action. Because we’ve been living in Tier 2 now for nearly three months and it’s not worked,” she said. “It’s not acceptable that meaningful conversations only began this morning.”
The other U.K. nations — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have also been tightening restrictions in recent weeks in light of the virus’ resurgence. There are growing indications that travel between the four nations will start to be restricted too, particularly to and from areas deemed to be high risk.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Thursday that people from central Scotland, including cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh that are facing tightest restrictions, should avoid traveling to to Blackpool, a seaside town in northwest England famous for its illuminated installations.
Blackpool is an even bigger draw for Scots this year because pubs will be showing the soccer match between the country’s two biggest soccer teams, Rangers and Celtic — while pubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh are still closed.
Main photo: Young people sit outside a pub while football is shown on TV as new measures across the region are set to come into force in Liverpool, England, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. (Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Frank Augstein)