Keir Starmer calls for ‘circuit break’ lockdown as coronavirus cases rise sharply

Labour leader accuses Boris Johnson of losing control of the virus and demands two- or three-week national shutdown  

Andrew Woodcock,Kate Devlin,Rob Merrick
Thursday 15 October 2020 19:51 BST
Keir Starmer calls for ‘circuit break’ lockdown

Sir Keir Starmer has smashed the political consensus on coronavirus, calling for a time-limited “circuit breaker” lockdown across the whole of England to try to bring the disease under control.

In his boldest move since becoming Labour leader in April, Starmer used a live televised news conference to say: “Three things are now clear: the Government has not got a credible plan to slow infections. It has lost control of the virus. And it’s no longer following the scientific advice.”

He said that Boris Johnson’s three-tier Covid Alert Level plan, launched on Monday, would cause “prolonged agony” to the economy as restrictions were repeatedly ramped up in response to their inevitable failure.

And he said that a two or three-week lockdown - during which non-essential workplaces and shops as well as restaurants, bars and pubs would be closed and household mixing limited, but schools remain open - would provide time to “reset” the government’s faltering test and trace system.

The Labour leader’s dramatic move came after confidence in Mr Johnson’s approach was shaken by the release late on Monday of papers from his own expert advisers, which revealed the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) recommended a circuit-breaker as long as three weeks ago, along with the closure of all pubs and restaurants and more controls on social contacts in a bid to curtail the spread of the virus in England.

Doubts were also sown by extraordinary scenes in the press conference to launch the three-tier plan, when chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned he was “not confident” that the baseline measures to be introduced in the most badly-affected areas would work.

In a direct challenge to the prime minister, Sir Keir said: “You know that the science backs this approach. You know that the restrictions you’re introducing won’t be enough. 

"You know that a circuit break is needed now to get this virus under control. You can’t keep delaying this and come back to the House of Commons every few weeks with another plan that won’t work.”

The Labour leader refused to put a price-tag on his shutdown plan, but said: “If we don’t do this, the cost to the economy will be much greater in the long run.

“If the R rate runs out of control, it will be the economy that pays in the long term, so this will save money in the long term.”

There was no immediate official response from Downing Street, but a senior government source took aim at the Labour leader without ruling out his plan.

“Keir Starmer is a shameless opportunist playing political games in the middle of a global pandemic,” said the source.

"He says he wants a national lockdown but he’s refusing to vote for targeted restrictions in areas that need them most”

Tory MPs echoed the criticism, with former chief whip Mark Harper describing the circuit-breaker proposal as “short-sighted game-playing”. Workington MP Mark Jenkinson said Sir Keir’s “one-size fits all” approach would cause “untold damage” and accused him of being ready to “destroy this country on a whim just to play his political games”.

But the circuit breaker plan was backed by Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, who said it was time the government “listened to its own experts”.

Starmer  said the prime minister was failing to “follow the science” because of pressure from his own party’s MPs to open up the economy.

Some 42 Tory rebels voted against the government in a Commons over the imposition of a nationwide 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants, but the measure passed easily after Labour abstained.

And the PM had to field challenges to his approach as he addressed the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers by Zoom in a bid to shore up support.

Mr Johnson lost a member of his government, as Bolton West MP Chris Green resigned as a parliamentary private secretary, complaining that local lockdown measures in his constituency had “clearly not worked”, adding: “I believe that the cure is worse than the disease.”

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford wrote to the PM urging him to ban people in lockdown areas of England from travelling to parts of Wales with low incidence of the disease.

Downing Street defended Mr Johnson’s decision not to implement Sage’s advice in full on 22 September, when he instead announced the hospitality curfew and urged people to work from home if possible, or on Monday, when he ramped up restrictions only in the worst-hit parts of the country.

“The Government receives advice from a wide range of scientific experts and also from economists but it’s ultimately for ministers to make decisions,” said Mr Johnson’s official spokesman.

He pointed to a section of the Sage papers which discussed the need to consider the economic harms alongside the health impacts.

“That is exactly what the prime minister and the chancellor did by canvassing a wide variety of scientific opinion alongside extensive engagement with scientific and medical advisers and the chief economist ahead of announcing the package of measures that we put forward in September,” he said.

Oxford University’s Professor James Naismith, the director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, said the government’s “wait and see” approach could result in a longer lockdown.

“Sage’s advice was that a nationwide lockdown was more likely to work in terms of reducing viral spread,” said Prof Naismith. “The government has opted to wait and see if less stringent measures can avoid a severe second wave.

“There is a risk that we will end up having to lock down again, perhaps with a different name but in effect the same thing. If we do so, the duration of lockdown will be likely be longer as a result of delay.”

The Sage papers also warned that the government’s much-criticised £12bn test and trace system was having only a “marginal” impact on transmission of the virus because of delays in producing test results and low levels of engagement from the public.

But health secretary Matt Hancock insisted the system was the envy of the world when he appeared before MPs in the House of Commons.

“When I talk to my international colleagues, they ask the question ‘How did you manage to build this capacity so fast?’” he said.

Mr Hancock hailed an “enormous system that is working so effectively”, telling his critics: “To argue that is at the root of this challenge, that is unfortunately to miss the big picture.”

The reality was that social contact would cause transmission “until we have a vaccine or a massive, massive testing capacity that nobody yet has”, he argued.

Figures released on Tuesday recorded a further 17,234 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, as well as 143 deaths - the highest since 10 June, bringing the total toll of fatalities to 43,018.

Public Health England’s medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said: “The trend in Covid-related deaths is starting to rise quickly, which is hugely concerning.

“We have seen cases increasing especially in older age groups which is leading to more hospital admissions. This is a stark reminder for us to follow the guidelines.”

Labour’ s MP for Chester, Chris Matheson, has revealed he is self-isolating after testing positive for coronavirus.

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