Keir Starmer has accused the Prime Minister of reintroducing a “risky” system after Boris Johnson confirmed that the country would see a return to three tiers of coronavirus rules after the English lockdown ends.
Johnson told MPs via video link this afternoon that the national lockdown will end on December 2nd and a tougher version of the previous three-tier system would be put in place, with all being advised to work from home where possible.
The Prime Minister confirmed to parliament that the tier system will be stricter and become a “uniform set of rules”, which means no negotiations will take place with certain areas of the country on varying restrictions.
Across all three tiers in England, shops, gyms and hairdressers will be allowed to open, while collective worship, weddings and outdoor sports will resume, and the rule of six for gatherings of people will apply.
Pubs and restaurants will be allowed to open in Tier 1 and they can serve alcohol with a “substantial” meal in Tier 2. All hospitality and indoor entertainment will be closed in Tier 3 except delivery and takeaways.
Following criticism of the 10pm hospitality curfew rule that was imposed in England before the current lockdown, from next Wednesday there will be a 10pm cut-off for last orders and a closing time of 11pm.
The Prime Minister said he hoped on Thursday to reveal more details of which areas of England will go into which coronavirus tiers. This will be based on factors including rates of Covid cases and projected NHS pressures.
With more regions falling “at least temporarily” into higher tiers than before the lockdown, Johnson suggested that it “should be possible for areas to move down the tiering scale” rather than moving up it as before.
He was also explicit that this approach would allow people to see more of their family and friends over the Christmas period, saying: “I can’t say that Christmas will be normal this year. We all want some kind of Christmas.
“We need it. We certainly feel that we deserve it… But what we don’t want is to throw caution to the winds and allow the virus to flare up again, forcing us all into lockdown in January.”
Johnson added: “This virus is not going to grant a Christmas truce. It doesn’t know it’s Christmas… Christmas cannot be normal and there is a long road to spring. But we have turned a corner and the escape route is in sight.”
Responding to the Prime Minister’s Covid statement, Starmer started by welcoming recent “tremendous progress” on vaccines and the apparent adoption of a four nations approach to Christmas arrangements.
But the Labour leader was strongly critical of the proposed return to a three-tier rules system, which he described as “risky”, saying of the last attempt: “It didn’t work… We ended up in national lockdown.”
Starmer said the allocation of areas to tiers was the “red hot question”, and raised further queries over how long each area would remain in each tier and whether there would be a new economic package alongside tougher rules.
“If we’re reintroducing a three-tier system without having fixed test, trace and isolate, that is a major risk – and we all need to acknowledge it,” Starmer told MPs. “Because it begs the million-dollar question.
“How confident is the Prime Minister that the approach he is proposing today will keep the R rate below 1? Because if it doesn’t, infections will go up, back out of control, and we could well be back in a national lockdown.”
The opposition leader concluded: “There are huge gaps in this plan, huge uncertainties and huge risk.” The Prime Minister replied by suggesting that “it’s not clear whether he is supporting [the new rules] or not”.
Despite the criticisms put forward by Starmer, Johnson said: “I’m aware that his support is one of those things that kind of ‘now you see it now you don’t’, but never mind. I’ll take it while it seems to be there at least temporarily.”
The Prime Minister appeared to experience technical problems, which led to Health Secretary Matt Hancock stepping into answers questions from MPs. The UK has recorded a further 15,450 Covid-19 cases and 206 deaths today.