Keir Starmer calls for Covid ‘circuit breaker’ as pressure on Boris Johnson mounts
Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure to impose a short national lockdown to curb the surge in Covid-19 infections after Keir Starmer called for a “circuit breaker” that two of the government’s scientific advisers said could prevent thousands of deaths.
Sir Keir, the Labour leader, broke ranks to demand a shutdown of two or three weeks to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, in a significant escalation of his criticism of the government.
“There is no longer time to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt. The government’s plan simply isn’t working,” he said at a press conference.
Sir Keir’s backing for a national lockdown is a change of tack by Britain’s main opposition party. He proposed that schools stay open but all pubs and restaurants should shut, with only essential work and travel. “Months and months of the virus out of control would do far more damage to the economy,” the Labour leader said.
Several Labour city mayors have also argued for the circuit breaker, including Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester.
A senior government source said: “Keir Starmer is a shameless opportunist playing political games in the middle of a global pandemic.
“He says he wants a national lockdown but he’s refusing to back targeted restrictions in areas that need them most.”
Sir Keir’s comments were made ahead of the publication of a paper on Wednesday by two of the UK government’s leading scientific advisers. In the paper, which has been seen by the Financial Times, Graham Medley, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies panel, and Matt Keeling, a member of another state advisory board, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), say thousands of deaths from coronavirus could be avoided if a two-week lockdown were imposed.
The modelling finds that, in a best-case scenario, if coronavirus were growing at a very low rate at the time of a circuit breaker, a two-week lockdown would save thousands of lives, rising with the projected level of infection.
The scientists then model a range of scenarios under which, in the most extreme scenario with cases rising sharply — and with very few controls — the sudden imposition of a limited lockdown could prevent 107,000 deaths by January.
However, Prof Keeling explained that this model assumed no government intervention at all. “Obviously we’d never let things get that far,” he said.
The idea of a circuit breaker was first proposed by the government’s Sage panel last month but Mr Johnson opted instead for more limited measures such as the 10pm closing of pubs, to avoid economic damage.
While many Tory MPs said the current restrictions are too harsh, Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, said further action might be needed to “get this under control”.
The paper by Prof Medley and Prof Keeling is being submitted for peer review and models the effects of two weeks of strict social interventions from October 24 to November 7. This type of “precautionary break” could be used again at Christmas or the spring half-term as a measure to buy time to roll out other measures such as contact tracing, they argued.
The prime minister on Monday set out a three-tier system for local lockdowns, with Liverpool the first region to take the brunt of the strictest new measures as it is the area of England with the highest number of infections.
Liverpool has been struggling to cope with a surge in coronavirus cases, with 95 per cent of intensive-care beds in the city’s main hospitals full on Tuesday, said people with knowledge of the situation. The surge there has forced delays in some non-urgent treatment.
When asked if it was considering a fortnight-long national lockdown, Downing Street said it kept “measures” under review. “Where we have needed to go further, we have been prepared to do so,” a spokesman said.
*This story has been updated to clarify the range of modelling in the scientific paper