England to enter 'tougher' system of Covid restrictions when lockdown ends

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Man wearing face mask, © PA Wire/PA Images
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By Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent

England will enter a tougher three-tiered system of local coronavirus restrictions when the national lockdown ends on December 2nd, Downing Street has said.

Boris Johnson is expected to detail his plan for winter to MPs on Monday as he sets out how people can see their loved ones at Christmas.

The “Covid winter plan” is expected to place more areas into the higher tiers to keep the virus under control to ensure further restrictions are not needed, No 10 said.

The tiers are expected to be strengthened to safeguard the gains made during the national lockdown but it is understood that the controversial 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants will be altered under the new system.

The prime minister is expected to say that, while last orders must be called at 10pm, people will get an extra hour to finish their food and drinks with opening hours to be extended until 11pm.

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The British cabinet is expected to discuss and sign off the plan on Sunday before Mr Johnson announces it to Parliament the following day.

While he will set out how people will be able to spend their Christmas, ministers have made clear that the festive season will be different to normal, with some restrictions expected to remain in place.

Ministers will detail what tier each area will be placed into on Thursday and MPs are expected to be given the vote to approve the new system, as promised by Mr Johnson, in the days before it comes into force on December 2nd.

They are optimistic that restrictions can be gradually reduced in the run-up to spring. Providing vaccines are approved by regulators, the plan is for the rollout to begin next month before a wider programme in the new year.

(PA Graphics)

But the Mr Johnson will be wary of a rebellion from backbench Tory MPs who are opposed to new restrictions.

During a vote on the current four-week system earlier this month, 32 Conservatives rebelled to oppose the measures and 17 more, including former prime minister Theresa May, abstained.

Subsequently, the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) led by former chief whip Mark Harper and ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker has formed to resist new measures.

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On Saturday the CRG warned that they “cannot support” a tiered approach unless the government produces evidence to show measures “will save more lives than they cost”.

The warning against the measures inflicting “huge health and economic costs” came in a letter to Mr Johnson, which sources close to the group said had been signed by 70 Conservative MPs, though the group’s leaders were the only signatories identified.

Downing Street will hope an easing at Christmas, potential vaccines on the horizon and new scientific evidence will lessen the scale of a rebellion, with the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) expected to publish papers on Monday stating that the previous tiers were not strong enough.

But the CRG letter said: “We cannot live under such a series of damaging lockdowns and apparently arbitrary restrictions, and expect our constituents to be grateful for being let out to enjoy the festive season, only to have strict restrictions imposed on them afterwards that cause them health problems and destroy their livelihood.”

Separately, former Manchester United captain Gary Neville will launch a campaign called UnitedCity on Monday which aims to get Manchester “moving” after lockdown.

He told the Sunday Times of the need for balance, adding that saving one life was more important than 10,000 people in a football stadium, but said: “We have to get people’s lives moving again.

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“People in this country don’t mind bad news as long as you give it to them straight. I truly believe people would rather be punched with the truth than tickled with a lie.

“You have got to be decisive. This week there are hundreds of thousands of businesses around the country who don’t know whether to bring staff back in a week’s time – and we’re two weeks away from national lockdown ending.”

The government announced a further 341 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Saturday, bringing the UK total to 54,626.

Labour has so far been supportive of the need for restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19, and a full-scale Commons defeat on the plan is unlikely.

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But shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, in a speech ahead of the Downing Street announcement, said the nation could not be allowed to return “to the shambles we had before this lockdown” in calling for “clarity” on economic support.

A Labour spokesman said “we will look closely at any proposals the Government brings forward” but called for “proper packages of support” for businesses that are unable to fully reopen.

“The previous system was failing – simply returning to it without other measures in place will not work,” he added.

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