Coronavirus: Cases in north of England 'getting out of control', minister says

Coronavirus is "getting out of control" in the north of England, a minister has said, as she defended government plans to bring in new restrictions.

Gillian Keegan, minister for skills and apprenticeships, said the country was in an "unbelievably serious situation".

But she acknowledged that communication with areas facing new measures needed to be clearer.

It comes as Sir Keir Starmer called for local leaders to be "in the room" and included in local lockdown decisions.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Labour leader accused the government of "operating under the misguided, arrogant and counterproductive view that 'Whitehall knows best'".

North 'levelled down'

A tiered system of measures for England is set to be announced within days, in an effort to stall rising infection rates.

Under the new system, pubs and restaurants could be closed in the worst-affected areas, while a ban on overnight stays is also being considered.

But there has been growing anger among MPs and local leaders about the way the government has communicated the proposed changes with them.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham accused the government of treating the north of England with "contempt" after he learned ministers were considering shutting hospitality venues in the worst-affected areas in a newspaper report.

Mr Burnham said he would challenge the closure of pubs, bars and restaurants if the measure did not come with financial support.

He told BBC's Question Time: "The message I've given to the government is a pretty clear one - there can be no restrictions without support.

"And if it's going to be the tier three restrictions - effectively a national lockdown - we have to go back to a full furlough scheme for those staff, support for those businesses, otherwise the north of England is going to be levelled down this winter and I won't accept it."

In response, Gillian Keegan said the government had to act to stem the rise in cases.

"This is serious - it is getting out of control, and we have to do something to bring it back under control," she said.

But she acknowledged that communication with the worst-hit areas needed to improve.

"We definitely need to work locally and we definitely need to make sure that the communications are much clearer.

"I do agree with you, Andy, it's probably very frustrating if leaks are made or there is speculation in the press, and I don't know which of those it is.

"But clearly we have to do something if we're going to bring those cases back under control."

'Chaos and unfairness'

In his Telegraph article, Sir Keir said the government had "lost control of the virus" and urged ministers to "get a grip".

"It was an act of gross irresponsibility for anonymous No 10 sources to tell a few newspapers on Thursday about plans to impose further restrictions on millions of people, without any detail, without any consultation and without any statement from the prime minister.

"This has significantly added to the sense of confusion, chaos and unfairness in the approach that is being taken."

Tier system

Earlier, Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned the country was facing a "perilous moment" in the pandemic, with cases continuing to rise.

There were 17,540 new cases of coronavirus recorded in the UK on Thursday, up from the 14,162 reported the day before, government data showed. A further 77 people died after testing positive for the virus within 28 days.

Mr Hancock said the situation was becoming "very serious", and that he was most concerned about parts of Yorkshire, the North West and North East of England, as well as areas of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Fears have been raised that NHS services could be overwhelmed if the virus gets out of control.

NHS England data published on Thursday showed the number of people waiting more than a year to start hospital treatment is at its highest level since 2008 - with some 111,026 people waiting more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment in August.

Map showing areas with extra local restrictions

Prof John Edmunds, a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the virus was "holding a gun" to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's head over the restrictions being introduced.

The nation faces an anxious wait to see the full impact on the NHS, he said.

"In the north of England now, we are not that far away from the health service being stretched.

"Because even if we turn the epidemic around now, infections that occur today won't go to hospital for another week or two," he said.

Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds, said the increase in cases should "serve as a warning to the government to take further action without delay".

"It is clear that the consequences of not suppressing infections sufficiently over the summer may be severe if we cannot get on top of this increase," he said.

Datapic showing UK daily Covid cases on 8 October 2020

In other developments:

  • A rapid "bedside" test for coronavirus could help cut the spread of the infection in hospitals, scientists say
  • New restrictions aimed at halting the rise in Covid infections are to come into force in Scotland

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