The government’s flagship three-tier system of restrictions to tackle coronavirus has created a “gateway to months of agony” for millions of people, with no clear exit route, Labour has warned.
Speaking as South Yorkshire became the latest area of England to be placed in the toughest of the scheme’s alert levels, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer voiced fears that tier 3 status offered communities “the worst of all worlds”, inflicting significant harm on their economies without freeing them from the virus.
His comments came as a member of Boris Johnson’s Sage advisory group warned the UK was on course for "tens of thousands of deaths" during the current second wave of coronavirus.Prof John Edmunds told a panel of MPs that the government's current approach would lead to "a high level of incidence everywhere".
Latest figures recorded 191 deaths across the UK on Wednesday, as well as 26,688 positive tests for coronavirus - the highest yet recorded, but certain to be lower than the true infection rate at the height of the first wave in the spring, when fewer tests were done.
Sheffield, Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley will follow Merseyside, Lancashire and Greater Manchester into tier 3 on Saturday, bringing to more than 7 million the total population living under stringent restrictions which close pubs and bars and severely limit social contact.
Talks are continuing with Nottinghamshire on a similar move for a county which has recorded some of the highest rates of Covid-19 in recent weeks, while a decision on West Yorkshire has been put off until next week and the northeast and Teesside have been given at least a temporary reprieve as infections show signs of levelling off or falling.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s hospitality industry warned of tens of thousands of potential job losses as first minister Nicola Sturgeon extended the closure of pubs and restaurants across the country’s central belt - including Edinburgh and Glasgow - from 26 October to 2 November.
And Boris Johnson was accused of “divide and rule” tactics by going over the head of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham to offer a share of £60m in business support to the city’s 10 borough councils, a day after the area was placed in tier 3 without the agreement of local leaders.
Starmer launched an assault at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on the government’s approach of dividing England into three “medium”, “high” and “very high” alert levels with varying restrictions on social and economic activity, rather than imposing a national “circuit breaker” lockdown in a bid to quash the second wave of Covid in two or three weeks.
He accused the PM of “bargaining with people’s lives”, at a time when even his own scientific advisers could not guarantee that tier 3 - which sees pubs, bars and other businesses closed and much social contact banned - will bring the virus under control .
Sir Keir told Mr Johnson: “The widespread fear, prime minister, is that tier 3 is the worst of all worlds. It brings significant economic harm without getting the virus sufficiently under control to exit tier 3.
“Instead of being a solution, tier 3 is a gateway to weeks and weeks - more likely months and months - of agony, from which there’s no likely exit.
“Can the prime minister not see the problem if there isn’t a clear exit?”
Mr Johnson resisted Starmer’s demand to name a figure at which the crucial coronavirus reinfection rate - known as R - would trigger automatic exit from tier 3. All tier 3 restrictions will be reviewed every 28 days, he said.
“Obviously the R is one of the measures that we look at,” said the prime minister. “We'll take a decision based on a number of things, including the R but also of course rates of infection, rates of admission to hospital and and other data.”
Sir Keir responded: “If it’s not the R rate under one, what is it? Millions of people want to know the answer to that question.”
Labour later attacked the government for voting down its call for “fair economic support” for businesses and jobs in tier 3 areas by a margin of 340-261 in the House of Commons, when Greater Manchester Tories Chris Green (Bolton West) and William Wragg (Hazel Grove) rebelled.
Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said: "The government had a chance to fix its shambolic approach to supporting areas moving into tier 3. It said No.
"Boris Johnson promised to deliver for the North and the Midlands, but he’s let them down in the middle of a pandemic."
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick wrote to the leaders of the 10 Greater Manchester councils, offering to hand over a share of the £60m business support “as soon as is practicable” if they came forward to request the cash.
The £60m was the maximum offer made by ministers before talks broke up on Tuesday, after Mr Burnham and the councils slashed their demand from £75m to £65m. Government sources said it equated to around £20 per head of population, a similar per capita figure to those received by the Liverpool City Region and Lancashire.
But Mr Burnham said ministers had never suggested during negotiations lasting more than a week that they would calculate support on the basis of a formula of this kind.
“What’s strange today, is that the government is talking about it as though it was a formula, as though it was never a negotiation,” the mayor told ITV News.
“They said it needed to be a negotiation between us and them and we went into it in good faith and Greater Manchester stuck together and I’m very proud actually of all of our leaders who came together and backed me through this.
“The idea of a hardship fund was put on the table and then taken off again by ministers. At no point did I not feel that I was in a real negotiation. But now to read today that it was always a formula and there was no way that Greater Manchester was ever going to get more than Lancashire or Liverpool – I think well what was that all about, then?”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the prime minister of "trying to play us off against each other across Greater Manchester".
The Ashton-under-Lyne MP - who got into trouble for calling a Tory MP “scum” during the debate - said: “It’s not just some spiteful little game that's going on, it's people's lives, people's loved ones, people's jobs.”
She said it was important to win the battle for adequate support for people facing lockdown as "next week and in the weeks ahead it'll be communities in other parts of the country that find themselves in Tier 3".
But chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay responded: "There is a difference, I'm sorry to say, between the approach taken by the mayor in Manchester and the constructive approach taken by other local leaders, and I don't accept the premise from the opposition front bench that the mayor of Manchester alone speaks for Great Britain, and other local leaders in Liverpool, Lancashire, South Yorkshire or elsewhere do not."
Meanwhile a former head of the civil service said that the flouting of lockdown rules by Mr Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings “clearly undermined” efforts to win the public’s support to fight the pandemic.
Former cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill - who was forced out after clashing with Cummings - branded the aide’s notorious journey to County Durham “a mistake”, and told the BBC that there were “legitimate” questions which could be asked in a future inquiry about whether the country could have been better prepared for the pandemic.