Boris Johnson was under fire from all sides today as Conservative MPs called for the new lockdown to be kept to a minimum, while Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer claimed that delaying it had cost thousands of lives.
In another blow to the Prime Minister ahead of a Commons statement, a senior medical expert said the Government’s refusal to stage a two-week lockdown in September had led to more deaths and greater damage to the economy.
“I think if we had chosen a two-week circuit-break at that time we would definitely have saved thousands of lives,” said Professor Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London, and a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag). “And, we would clearly have inflicted substantially less damage on our economy than the proposed four-week lockdown will do.”
In a lacerating speech to the Confederation of British Industry, Sir Keir laid the blame equally at Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s door. “One of the things I’ve learnt from this crisis is that it exposes leadership and character like nothing else,” he said. “On both counts the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have failed. They failed to learn. They failed to listen. And they failed to lead. The result is tragic — but all too predictable.
On September 21 the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee recommended an “urgent” circuit breaker to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Sir Keir told the CBI there had been 11 Covid deaths that day, whereas 40 days later there were 326 deaths in a day and 22,000 new cases. “That is the human cost of the Government’s inaction,” he said. On Mr Sunak, who is understood to have resisted a circuit breaker and higher payments for people who self-isolate, Sir Keir said: “Make no mistake, the Chancellor’s name’s all over this.
His decision to block a circuit breaker… will now mean that businesses have to close for longer.”
Many Conservative MPs were today privately aghast at the muddled way the new measures were hastily announced on Saturday night after a leak.
Right-wingers threatened a rebellion when MPs votes on the new four-week lockdown this week. Wellingborough MP Peter Bone told the Radio 4’s Today programme: “At the moment, I have not been convinced that I should vote on Wednesday with the Government.”
He also backed a call by Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, for a full impact assessment of what lockdown would mean for the economy and people’s lives.
Former Cabinet minister John Redwood called on the Government to minimise disruption. “Keep outdoor sporting facilities open. Let garden centres and specialist household supply shops trade,” he said.
The Chancellor confirmed in a BBC interview that the lockdown could not be extended beyond December 2 without a fresh Commons vote. He also said financial support for the self-employed would rise above the current 40 per cent level. Defending the need for lockdown, he told Today: “What’s clear is that the virus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worse case of our scientific advisers.”