There is “every reason” to believe that areas of England could be moved into less stringent coronavirus restriction tiers before Christmas, a government minister has claimed.
Robert Jenrick was speaking amid mounting anger from Tory backbenchers over the decision to place 99 per cent of the country in the “high” or “very high” bands of Boris Johnson’s regional system.
The prime minister is facing a possible rebellion of 50 or more backbenchers in a vote next Tuesday to approve the new system, due to come into effect on 2 December.
A review of the allocations is to be conducted on 16 December, and Mr Johnson has said that those placed in the toughest tier 3 can apply for six-week rapid community testing schemes in the hope of driving down infection rates, as happened in Liverpool.
But the communities secretary indicated that there was not enough capacity to test all of the tier 3 areas - which cover more than two-fifths of England’s population and include cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle - saying that ministers would have to prioritise if all applied.
Mr Jenrick’s hopes for an early downgrading of alert levels clashed with the warnings of the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who told a press conference on Wednesday that only the harshest tier 3 regime would cut infections, with tier 2 only strong enough to “hold the line” against Covid-19 and tier 1 certain to lead to spread of the disease.
A member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) this morning warned there was little scope for any easing of restrictions before Christmas even if the new system worked, because of the time-lag between the introduction of the tiers and their impact becoming apparent.
Professor John Edmunds described 16 December as “an early review stage”, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I can’t imagine there will be huge changes at that point just simply because I don’t think we will have accumulated much data by then.”
Mr Jenrick played up the prospect of changes to the tiers, telling BBC1’s Breakfast that the government would listen to the views of local councils as well as assessing each area against its five tests for the seriousness of the outbreak.
“There are a number of places which are quite finely balanced in the country today where there was a strong case to be in a tier one degree lower than where they ended up, but on a balanced judgment they are in a tier up,” he said.
“In those places and perhaps others in the country, if people do follow the rules and if we do make the tiered system work, there is every reason to believe that they could de-escalate and go down a tier in time for Christmas.”
On a visit to the Public Health England laboratory at Porton in Wiltshire, Boris Johnson acknowledged the restrictions are "frustrating" but said they are necessary to control the disease.
He also played down the idea the some smaller areas, with low levels of disease, could be placed in different tiers.
"The difficulty is that if you did it any other way, first of all you'd divide the country up into loads and loads of very complicated sub-divisions - there has got to be some simplicity and clarity in the way we do this," he said.
"The second problem is that, alas, our experience is that, when a high incidence area is quite close to a low incidence area, unless you beat the problem in the high incidence area, the low incidence area, I'm afraid, starts to catch up.”
Some 14,000 troops have been put on stand-by to assist NHS Test and Trace teams with the mass deployment of “lateral flow” tests which can deliver results within an hour and allow early isolation of asymptomatic Covid sufferers. The tests are believed to have played a part in driving infection rates down by 70 per cent in Liverpool, which was one of the few areas to be moved down a tier under the new regime.
But Mr Jenrick signalled that capacity is not sufficient to extend testing immediately to all of the councils in tier 3, which covers all of the northeast, South and West Yorkshire, the Humber region, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Kent, Bristol, parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire and Slough.
“If all the country that’s in tier 3 wants to do it, then we would work on a priority basis,” he told Sky News.
Mr Jenrick said that the new tiers had deliberately been made more stringent than the original regional system imposed in October, which he said was “probably not strong enough to have the desired effect”.
There was fury among MPs, civic leaders and businesses at the decision to place whole regions and counties into tougher tiers on a blanket basis, rather than responding to local incidence of the disease.
With a total ban on pub and restaurant visits in tier 3 and a requirement for drinks to be served only with substantial meals in tier 2, many believe that the designation will prove devastating to local economies in the crucial run-up to Christmas.
In the hope of winning over potential rebels and avoiding the humiliation of being forced to rely on Labour votes to get his plan through on Tuesday, Mr Johnson is to produce an economic impact analysis of the changes early next week.
Former minister Tobias Ellwood said he would “probably abstain” in next week’s vote , but wanted more “clarity” from the government on the rationale for its decisions.
The MP for Bournemouth East, whose constituency will be in tier 2 after the English national lockdown ends, told BBC Breakfast: “We would really like to see criteria, to see the justification for this and also better understand what we need to do to get out of this tier.
“I think that clarity of communication is so important at this time.”
Ashford MP and former cabinet minister Damian Green said that MPs in his own county of Kent, as well as areas including Dorset and Lincolnshire where the incidence of Covid is relatively low, were “very annoyed” to be placed in higher tiers.
“People here feel everyone has been behaving properly and observing the guidelines and all of that, and the reward is we went into the lockdown in tier 1 and we come out in tier 3,” Mr Green told Times Radio.
“It has just made people think, what was the point of this lockdown?”