Tier Rows, Circuit Breakers, UK Splits, Brexit Deadlines; Here Are The Five Key Battles Boris Johnson Is Facing Today
Boris Johnson faces a crunch day on coronavirus and Brexit today (PA)
It has long been suggested the Prime Minister will face a difficult winter as a confluence of events all come together to hit the government at once, but it seems that crunch time has come early for Boris Johnson.
With rows over his three-tiered lockdown system, continued pressure to go further and implement a “circuit breaker”, splits across the UK over travel restrictions and the small matter of an EU summit, Thursday is shaping up to be a big day.
Here are the key battles:
Extending Tier 3 Across The North
After days of wrangling it appears almost certain further parts of the North of England will join Liverpool and be placed into the “very high” lockdown tier and face the strictest measures as coronavirus cases show no sign of coming down.
The Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty is said to have recommended placing most of the North West and North East, as well as parts of Yorkshire and the Midlands, into Tier 3 at a meeting of the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s “Local Action Committee Gold” last night.
It appears Greater Manchester and Lancashire are set to be the first to be affected, with meetings set up this morning to try and convince politicians representing those areas it is the correct move.
Downing Street aide Eddie Lister and other Cabinet Office officials will speak to northern leaders, health minister Jo Churchill will then call Lancashire MPs at 10.15am, followed by care minister Helen Whately facing Manchester MPs at 10.45am.
Then their boss, health secretary Matt Hancock, will deliver a statement in the Commons at 11.30 am to announce the move, but it seems unlikely everyone will be won over, with Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham insisting he “won’t accept” being put in Tier 3, which will see pubs and gyms shut on top of all household mixing banned, and travel advised against.
He has repeatedly threatened legal action against the move, but it does have the support of Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool and a member of the Sage advisory committee.
He told BBC Breakfast: "There is always going to be some friction between the focus on the numbers of case, and the need to keep the economy going, but from a purely academic point of view where I'm coming from, if you allow the numbers to rise it inevitably has an impact on the economy because you start to lose the capacity to deliver these other essential services."
Putting London In Tier 2
Another row over regional tier placement is underway, although conversely this one is about local leaders wanting the more severe restrictions in place.
London mayor Sadiq Khan wants the capital moved from “medium” to “high” as cases continue to rise, which ministers have so far resisted, along with a further a package of financial support to help businesses and employees affected, as the second tier sees no social household mixing in any indoor setting, plus guidance to avoid public transport where possible.
Despite variable rates of Covid-19 across London’s 32 boroughs, he has written to the PM saying as the overall rate of infections was "fast approaching" 100 cases per 100,000 the tougher measures must be implemented as soon as this week.
"It is vital London has the resources to engage, explain, encourage and enforce heightened restriction and support compliance," Mr Khan said in the letter.
"One London borough has done some specific work to estimate the cost of providing that service for six months from November onward and it is £300k over and above the allocation that was recently made to councils for support to compliance.
"I am aware that these are discussions that have taken place with other areas that have had restrictions in place and London government would expect to have those discussions as well.”
Ms Whately also has a call lined up with London MPs at 9.30am on “Covid-19 local action”, and it is likely the capital will go into Tier 2, whether a compensation package is agreed.
Circuit Breaker Lockdown
There are still calls for the government to go beyond the three existing tiers and implement a new two-week national lockdown, known as a “circuit breaker”, to flatten the continued rise in cases, after Sage recommended one three weeks ago.
Labour put pressure on the PM to go for one after Sir Keir Starmer called for it earlier this week, and Mr Johnson refused to rule one out in the Commons yesterday, despite repeatedly decrying the potential impact of imposing such a measure.
It is believed he is working on plans for a version of the policy to be introduced during half-term week, which begins on October 26, but it may be limited to only those areas already in Tier 3 and other specific places.
According to The Times this would avoid handing a victory to Labour and allow the PM to stick to his regional approach, but it will still run against huge opposition in his Cabinet, with several ministers pushing back hard against a blanket lockdown.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak made his feelings clear by calling a circuit-breaker “a blunt instrument” that would “cause needless damage to parts of our country where virus rates are low” when appearing in Parliament yesterday.
UK Travel Bans
After Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced he wants to ban people from parts of the UK with high rates of coronavirus from traveling to his country it looks as though his Scottish counterpart Nicola Sturgeon will follow suit.
She said she will write to Mr Johnson calling for urgent talks over travel restrictions, with the SNP's Westminster leader Ian Blackford clear that measures will be taken.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "We of course have the opportunity to put in place appropriate public health measures.
"What we can do, if necessary, is say that people should not travel from hotspots, whether they should be from in Scotland or people coming to Scotland from other parts of the United Kingdom.
"But that will be done on an evidence-based approach where we think it's appropriate to protect the people in all parts of the country from people travelling where it's not necessary.”
Elsewhere Northern Ireland is introducing tough new lockdown measures, a “circuit break” in all but name, while Mr Drakeford also confirmed yesterday Wales is “planning very seriously” to introduce a similar move, leaving Number 10 with a lot of work to do to keep the message of a “four-nation approach” to tackling the virus.
Crunch European Council Summit Gets Underway In Brussels
And there is the small matter of Brexit. There have been countless meetings of EU leaders which have been described as make or break over the past few years but with less than three months until the end of the transition period at some point they really do start to become make or break.
Especially after the PM said back in September “there needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on October 15 if it’s going to be in force by the end of the year”.
Well here we are at that deadline, with Mr Johnson holding a call with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel last night, after which a Number 10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister noted the desirability of a deal, but expressed his disappointment that more progress had not been made over the past two weeks."
But his chief negotiator David Frost is said to be advising him a deal is not impossible, and it seems like the deadline will be pushed back to allow another few weeks of talks to finally iron out those key issues of fishing and level playing field that stand in the way of a deal.
The consequences of not finding a deal were made stark yesterday, after transport minister Rachel Maclean revealed portable toilets may be installed alongside roads in Kent should lorry drivers get stuck in congestion leading down to the border post-Brexit.