British PM Johnson warns England not to relax after coronavirus lockdown ends

Pedestrians walk near a billboard displaying a Manchester City Council message about the national lockdown restrictions, on Nov 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of "long months ahead" in the fight against coronavirus, as his government put most of England into the highest two tiers of new restrictions when a lockdown lifts next week.

London will be placed in tier 2, avoiding the toughest rules from Dec 2 and allowing pubs, restaurants and bars to open - but restricting alcohol to being served as part of a meal.

Cities including Birmingham and Manchester were placed in the toughest tier 3, in which pubs and restaurants must close except for takeaway. Households will not be allowed to mix indoors in either tier.

"What we want to avoid is relaxing now too much, you know, taking our foot off the throat of the beast now," Johnson said in a televised press conference Thursday (Nov 26). "There is a substantial relaxation across all tiers but we're not abandoning the fight yet, of course not, because we still, as I say, have long months ahead."

The regional three-tier system is tougher than before England entered a four-week partial lockdown this month. Ministers want to make sure they have some control of the virus's spread before people are allowed a further five-day relaxation of the rules during the Christmas holidays.

Christmas risks

And even then, Johnson's scientific advisers warned people not to take risks and to avoid endangering their elderly relatives.

"Would I encourage someone to hug and kiss their elderly relatives? No, I would not," England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said at the press conference. Don't hug a relative "if you want them to survive to be hugged again," he warned.

Johnson's government is trying to balance the risks of the virus again getting out of control with the need to support an economy going through its worst slump in 300 years.

Virus cases have surged across the UK in the fall, and the prime minister's scientific advisers are trying to chart a course that prevents the state-run National Health Service from being overwhelmed.

But the premier also faces a looming rebellion from members of his own Conservative Party angry about the restrictions imposed on their districts.

Influential Tory MP Graham Brady said he will oppose the new measures when they are put to a vote in Parliament next week.

'Too authoritarian'

"The policies have been far too authoritarian," he told the BBC on Thursday. "There has got to be a real danger that if these restrictions aren't lifted very, very soon there will be a lot of businesses that simply won't reopen."

Some 41% of England - or 23 million people - will be in tier 3, including large swathes of the northeast, northwest, and the Midlands. Bristol, in the southwest, and the southeast county of Kent are also included.

Another 57% of England, or 32 million people, will be in tier 2, including much of southern England and the northwest region of Liverpool which has pioneered mass testing. Only Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly are in the lowest tier 1.

Johnson said he wants other parts of the country to "replicate" Liverpool's success with testing, pledging to roll out the system to all tier 3 areas as fast as possible. He also suggested the goal is a system that allows people more freedom if they can show they don't have coronavirus.


"Testing on this scale is untried, but in due course if it works, where people test negative it also may be possible for families and communities to be released from certain restrictions," he said.

Under the new rules, the general requirement for people to stay home will end, and shops, gyms and hairdressers will reopen. But in all areas, people will be urged to continue to work from home if they can.

The announcement triggered an immediate push back from the hospitality industry, 98% of which is covered by the top two tiers in England, according to trade body UKHospitality. That will wipe out an estimated £7.8 billion of trading compared to last year if the restrictions last all of December, it said.

"We still have not seen any evidence that hospitality venues -- which have invested great time effort and money to making their spaces Covid-secure -- are a problem,"

UKHospitality Chief Executive Kate Nicholls said in a statement. The new system is a "huge blow" and "it seems unfair and arbitrary that hospitality is being dealt such a harsh hand," she said.

'Destroying lives'

The threat to business angered Tory MPs who had lobbied ministers to keep their areas out of the highest tiers.

The coronavirus restrictions are "destroying lives and livelihoods," Conservative MP Richard Drax said in a statement. "We need a new strategy based on common sense, not fear and more fear."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government will review which region is in each tier on Dec 16, based on infection rates and pressures on the National Health Service, and then every week after that.

Johnson said he's "convinced" that with a vaccine on the way, "by April things genuinely will be much much better." But Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance injected a note of caution, warning that while three different vaccines have recently revealed positive trial results, they still need regulatory approval.

"This is going to take months into spring, before we start to get significant degrees of vaccination to create protection," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.