Britain’s new measures to control virus inflame north-south tensions

By Mark Landler and Stephen Castle

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday ordered pubs, bars and gyms in the high-risk city of Liverpool to be closed, a move that inflamed tensions with local officials and laid bare how the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is hitting Britain’s north harder than London or the rest of the south.

Johnson’s measures dramatized the country’s increasingly urgent battle to avert a repeat of last spring’s deadly outbreak. But the rigors of this latest campaign are being felt unevenly: 2.4 million people in Liverpool and its suburbs face tough new restrictions while, for now, life in London goes on more or less normally.

The prime minister introduced a much-heralded three-tier system of restrictions that he promised would simplify what had become a confusing patchwork of targeted lockdowns in cities around the country.

Rather than calm the waters, the plan has infuriated officials in the north of England, who complain that they were cut out of the government’s deliberations. And they say the new lockdowns will throttle their economies, betraying an election-year promise by Johnson and his Conservatives to raise prosperity in the north closer to the level of London and other richer areas in the south.

“We don’t want to go back to another national lockdown,” Johnson said in Parliament.

But with new infections quadrupling over the past three weeks and hospitalizations rising to crisis levels, he said the government had no choice but to tighten its measures.

“We can’t let the virus rip,” Johnson said.

Under the government’s new system, cities or regions will be subject to three escalating tiers of restrictions, depending on the severity of their outbreaks. In the first, or medium alert level, they would merely face the most recent restrictions that Johnson announced for the entire country: a ban on social gatherings of more than six people and a 10 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants.

The second, or high alert level, triggers a ban on mixing by people from different households, while under the third, or very high alert level — the one just imposed on Liverpool — pubs, gyms and some other nonessential businesses must close. Schools, shops and offices can remain open, fulfilling Johnson’s vow last summer that if he faced a choice between schools or pubs, he would close pubs.

Fears that the virus could overwhelm the health service in the north prompted a decision to prepare three field hospitals there to admit patients. A network of “Nightingale hospitals,” constructed earlier this year, had been mothballed, but now those in Manchester, Sunderland and Harrogate have been placed on standby.

Britain’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, said that northern parts of the country were badly affected partly because infection rates were higher there than in other areas when the earlier lockdown measures were lifted.

Disease levels in the north, and certainly in the northwest, “never dropped as far” in the summer as they did in the south, said Van-Tam, while adding that “pretty much all areas of the U.K. are seeing growth in the infection rate.”

Health experts criticized the latest measures, saying they would neither stamp out the virus nor shield the economy from damage.

Devi Sridhar, the chair of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh, said the government failed to use the time during its earlier lockdown to put in place an effective test-and-trace program. Unless it remedied that failure now, there was little point to closing pubs or gyms.

“It’s a slow strangulation of both the economy and human health,” she said.

Other experts said the government should abandon the whole concept of lockdowns, since they predict that a second wave of cases will be less lethal and more manageable because of better medical treatments and a more resistant population.

Sunetra Gupta, an infectious disease expert at Oxford University, said the slower rate of transmission in London suggested that a significant percentage of the population there had already developed immunity to the virus. The government, she said, should aim for the same natural immunity in the north, shielding the elderly and vulnerable but not closing down parts of the economy.

“It just kicks the problem down the road,” Gupta said. “It causes a lot of small businesses to fold, a lot of people on temporary contracts to lose their jobs.”

Johnson has already faced fissures with Scotland, where authorities have diverged regularly from the government’s health measures. Now, though, he is facing criticism from local and regional officials in the north of England, who want more power in shaping the rules that affect their communities.

Several of the worst-hit areas are represented by city or regional mayors, who are demanding more aid from the government to help struggling businesses. On Monday, Johnson promised some extra cash to the regions through a modified extension of the government’s massive wage-subsidy program.

“If you see parts of your economy closed, potentially until March, whereas London and the south are not locked down similarly, you will think that the consequences could be a long-term worsening of economic performance of the north versus the south,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics.

“Mayors in these cities may have few formal powers,” Travers said, “but they have a media profile and enough political legitimacy to make a government in a weak position look even weaker.”

The government has tried to build support by bringing some local officials into its deliberations. It also left some major urban areas, like Manchester, out of the highest alert level. But even being in the second tier poses problems because it forbids people from different households from meeting for a drink in a pub, which the owners say will cripple their business, even if they stay open.

“This is something the latest local epidemiology does not support, and I am disappointed that the government is pressing ahead with this despite the united view of local leaders,” said Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, who the government had hoped would be an ally.

These tensions could have far-reaching political implications for Johnson. Voters in many of the affected areas traditionally supported the opposition Labour Party but last year switched to the Conservatives, propelling Johnson to victory.

Now some of those newly elected Conservative lawmakers are becoming restive. Several have joined a new caucus, the Northern Research Group, which is modeled on an influential pro-Brexit alliance of Conservative lawmakers known as the European Research Group. The goal, its founder, Jake Berry, told the BBC, is “to make sure that the government delivers on its promise to level up the north.”

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