London — Boris Johnson says there is “no alternative” to imposing a coronavirus lockdown across England to stop the health service being overwhelmed.
The UK prime minister, who revealed plans for whole cities to be tested to root out asymptomatic carriers of the disease, rejected criticism he was too slow to act, telling MPs he had done his “level best” to avoid national restrictions due to come into force on Thursday.
Pubs, restaurants, non-essential shops and gyms will be closed for four weeks and socialising will be severely restricted in a bid to curb the spread of the virus, though schools and nurseries will remain open, Johnson said.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Johnson said the number of deaths could be twice as high as the first wave earlier this year without urgent action.
“Faced with these latest figures, there is no alternative but to take further action at a national level,” he said. If the health service is allowed to be overwhelmed “doctors and nurses could be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would live and who would die”, he told MPs.
But he faced anger from some of his own Conservative colleagues over the plan, which will be subject to a vote on Wednesday.
Veteran MP Charles Walker warned the UK is drifting “further into an authoritarian coercive state” under the measures. “The people of this country will never, ever forgive the political class for criminalising parents seeing children and children seeing parents,” he told Johnson.
Ministers have been working to defuse tensions among Tory MPs ahead of the vote, and Johnson spoke with his party’s MPs over the weekend. The premier sought to address some of their concerns on Monday, saying the measures will be strictly time-limited to December 2, when the UK parliament will get a vote on the way forward.
Johnson underlined the government’s new focus on mass testing, pointing to “cheap, reliable, rapid turnaround tests” that could be used in schools and elsewhere to allow the economy to keep moving before the anticipated rollout of a vaccine next year.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said testing capacity had met Johnson’s target of half a million a day by the end of October and mass checks will be trialled in the city of Liverpool, as ministers step up efforts to identify carriers of the disease.
“These tests will help identify the many thousands of people in the city who don’t have symptoms but can still infect others without knowing,” Johnson said in a statement. “Dependent on their success in Liverpool, we will aim to distribute millions of these new rapid tests between now and Christmas and empower local communities to use them to drive down transmission.”
The new lockdown is likely to be approved in the House of Commons after Labour and other opposition parties said they will vote for the plan. But Labour leader Keir Starmer said “the human cost will be higher” because Johnson ignored the advice of his own scientists to impose a short lockdown in September.
Senior Tory MP Graham Brady called for a “full impact assessment” of the cost of the lockdown, including the toll on people’s mental health, before the vote. Former minister Mike Penning confirmed he will vote against the government.
Johnson and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak unveiled additional financial support for businesses and workers to add to the month-long extension of the government’s flagship furlough programme that was announced on Saturday.
During November, the state will double support for self-employed workers to 80% of their usual trading profits, in line with furlough payments. The treasury also extended the deadline for businesses to apply for state-backed loans until the end of January, and said those that have them already will be able to top them up.
The extra support came too late for many people laid off by companies last week, ahead of the furlough programme’s scheduled end. Sunak defended his decision to stick with his original time-frame, telling the BBC it was only the changing health data and subsequent lockdown that forced a rethink.
Bloomberg Economics said the second lockdown will mean the economy contracts in the fourth quarter and that the Bank of England will increase its asset purchase target this week by possibly more than the £100bn previously forecast.
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