England’s northwestern county of Lancashire, home to 1.5 million people, has agreed to accept the most severe level of COVID-19 restrictions as the British government warned Friday that it has the authority to impose such measures on high-risk areas that continue to resist. Geoff Driver, leader of the Lancashire County Council, said the county had struck a 42 million pound (USD 54.4 million) deal with the government to cushion the impact of business closures and other measures designed to slow the spread of the virus.
Lancashire joins neighboring Liverpool in the government‘s highest risk tier, forcing pubs and bars to close. Limits on socializing also come into effect and residents are advised to minimise travel. No deal is in sight, though, for Greater Manchester, which is holding out for more money to implement the measures targeted at areas with the highest infection rates.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has criticized Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, for “effectively trying to hold the government over a barrel over money and politics.” “Obviously, in the last resort the government has the powers to proceed in any event, but we would much rather work with the local leaders if at all possible,” Raab told Sky News before the Lancashire deal was announced. Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week introduced a three-tier regional approach to combating the coronavirus pandemic, with each tier bringing in progressively tighter restrictions.
The government is trying to slow rising infection rates and prevent the National Health Service from being swamped with COVID-19 cases this winter while seeking to avoid a national lockdown that would ravage the U.K.’s struggling economy. The British government is sticking to its strategy amid mounting political and scientific pressure for stronger nationwide measures to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from spiraling out of control.
Raab reiterated the government‘s belief that a regional approach where the toughest restrictions are imposed only in the areas with the highest infection rates is the best way to slow the spread of the virus and protect the economy. “I think the right thing, both on public health grounds but also supporting the economy, supporting jobs, livelihoods, supporting our society and the most vulnerable in it, is to avoid a second national lockdown,” he said.
The government has been under fire since Johnson unveiled his strategy on Monday amid revelations that scientific advisers had recommended a short nationwide lockdown to slow rapidly rising infection rates. Opposition politicians accuse ministers of doing too little, too late. Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist who sits on the government‘s scientific advisory panel, said Friday that restrictions imposed under the three-tier strategy aren’t tough enough to bring the virus under control, and that squabbling over where and when to impose the measures risks confusing the public.
Calling the situation the “worst of all worlds” Farrar said the U.K. needs to quickly implement tighter restrictions nationwide to slow the spread of the virus and limit broader damage to society. “I think we’ve got to come together as a country,” Farrar told the BBC. “The fragmentation and, frankly, making this either a north-south or a party political issue, that’s a very, very dangerous route to go on.” London and seven other areas will move into the second-highest risk tier on Saturday, leading to increased restrictions on more than 11 million people.