Boris Johnson today warned “I rule out nothing” in a furious clash over whether he will introduce a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown.
Tempers flared after Keir Starmer broke his truce with the government and demanded a stay-at-home order lasting two to three weeks.
In angry exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Tory leader accused his Labour rival of “opportunism” and vice versa.
And Mr Johnson claimed his three-tier local lockdown system is the “right way forward” – despite his scientific advisers shortlisting five urgent interventions, including a circuit-break, three weeks ago.
Yet in comments right at the end of the 10-minute clash, the Prime Minister admitted he was not actually ruling out a circuit-break lockdown himself.
When Sir Keir asked if it was true a circuit break had an 80% chance of being introduced, the PM replied: “I rule out nothing of course in combatting the virus.
“But we are going to do it with the local, the regional approach, that can drive down and will drive down the virus if it is properly implemented.
“And that is what I believe he should be supporting.”
Boris Johnson is under pressure to order a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown that scientists say could save thousands of lives.
The Prime Minister is believed to be willing to consider the drastic move if his new three-tier alert level fails to curb the spread of the virus.
Sir Keir last night broke ranks to demand new national restrictions to prevent the country from “sleepwalking into a long bleak winter”, as infection rates spiralled.
The so-called circuit breaker lockdown would see the majority of businesses forced to close, including pubs and restaurants.
Ministers are expected to take a decision at the end of next week, just in time for the half-term school holiday, with a source telling the Telegraph the likelihood of the U-turn is “at least 80 per cent”.
But a furious row is still raging over restrictions in places like Liverpool – now in Tier 3 – and Greater Manchester which the government could soon force into Tier 3 as well.
Greater Manchester’s 10 council leaders issued a statement this morning demanding not to go into Tier 3 until wage support for workers is improved.
But Sir Keir seized upon a part of the statement which said: “If cases continue to rise as predicted, and the Government continues to refuse to provide the substantial economic support that Tier 3 areas will need, then a number of Leaders in Greater Manchester believe a national circuit break, with the required financial support would be a preferable option.”
Sir Keir told PMQs: “He (Mr Johnson) probably hasn’t noticed that this morning, the council leaders in Greater Manchester that he’s just quoted, including the mayor and including the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, have said in a press statement that they support a circuit-break above Tier 3 restrictions.”
However, Labour’s leader did not make clear that the statement from the 10 council leaders said “a number of them” backed a circuit-break – not all of them.
The Tory leader of Bolton Council, David Greenhalgh, told the Guido Fawkes blog the claim was “disgraceful” and it was “completely untrue” he backs a circuit-break.
Asked if Mr Starmer would retract his comments, his spokesman said: “The Conservative leader of Bolton Council signed that statement this morning which confirmed – and I quote – that a number of leaders in Greater Manchester believe a national circuit break with the required financial support would be the preferable option. If that’s not his position then it is for him to say so, although the statement didn’t include any of those caveats.”
It comes after SAGE scientists reportedly calculated a two-week circuit breaker lockdown could save up to 107,000 lives by the end of the year.
A bombshell new paper by Graham Medley, a SAGE member, and Matt Keeling, of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, found between 3,000 and 107,000 deaths could be avoided by January if strict lockdown curbs were imposed, according to the FT.
The pair outlined how a two-week shutdown starting on October 24 would cut the death toll from 19,900 to 12,700 by January.
In the most extreme scenario, with cases rising sharply and few controls in place, up to 107,000 deaths would be prevented, they claim.
They also say estimated hospital admissions would fall from 132,000 to 66,000.
Both sides at PMQs accused the other of “opportunism” as they tried to turn the tables on an anonymous government source quote, sent to all Westminster journalists last night, that branded Sir Keir an opportunist.
MPs jeered as Sir Keir said: “I know that for someone who’s been an opportunist all his life this is difficult to understand.
“But having read and considered the SAGE advice I have genuinely concluded a circuit break is in the national interest.”
Yet Mr Johnson sniped back: “Opportunism is the name of the game for the party opposite.”
SIr Keir urged the PM to explain what his “alternative plan” was to get the R number below 1, rather than just lowering it generally.
The PM replied: “The plan is the plan that he supported on Monday.
“The whole point is to seize this moment now to avoid the misery of another national lockdown.”
Mr Johnson pointed to comments by Labour’s health chief Jon Ashworth – who yesterday said an extended lockdown lasting “weeks and weeks and weeks” like in April would be “disastrous”.
He added: “Let’s work together as he was prepared to do on Monday to keep kids in school, who he would now yank out… keep our economy going and keep jobs and livelihoods supported in this country.”
Sir Keir said: “I’m sure the PM has his pre prepared rant ready as usual. But we’re at a tipping point. Time is running out.”
Asking about a Telegraph report that the chances of a circuit-breaker were now 80%, he added: “Why doesn’t he do it now, save lives, fix testing and protect the NHS.”
The PM replied: “This is an [MP] who claims to be supporting the government one day and then performs a dramatic U-turn the next.
“He supports the rule of six one day then pulls his support the next. He wants tough measures and then refuses to vote for them.
“Everybody can see what he’s doing. Labour have said it themselves. They see this as a good crisis for the Labour Party and one they wish to exploit.
“We see this as a national crisis that we are going to turn around.”
Boris Johnson himself told Tory activists on October 4: “We have a massive opportunity now to use this unquestionable crisis, I mean it’s been a huge thing for our country, to build back better.”
He added: “It has been a very very difficult time but come the spring the opportunity will be massive.”
Keir Starmer’s calls for a circuit-breaker lockdown would include closures of non-essential retail, hairdressers and other close contact services, his spokesman said.
Schools would be open outside of the circuit break to minimise disruption to education.
He said Mr Starmer supported local restrictions but they were not working. He said: “The only proposal we’re putting on the table is for a nationwide circuit break.”