How Boris Johnson plans to shut down the North of England with three-tier scheme

Christopher Hope
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a meeting with President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Downing Street , London, to sign a strategic partnership deal with the president in the face of Russia's "destabilising behaviour" towards the country. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2020. The meeting with Mr Johnson is part of a two-day visit by Mr Zelenskyy to the UK which has included a tour of the Prince of Wales aircraft carrier in Portsmouth.  - Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a meeting with President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Downing Street , London, to sign a strategic partnership deal with the president in the face of Russia's "destabilising behaviour" towards the country. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2020. The meeting with Mr Johnson is part of a two-day visit by Mr Zelenskyy to the UK which has included a tour of the Prince of Wales aircraft carrier in Portsmouth. - Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Just five days ago Boris Johnson was proclaiming that he was a "freedom lovin' Tory". This weekend, he is signing off on plans for new lockdown restrictions across the North of England.

With a stroke of a pen next week he will be shutting thousands of pubs in areas at greatest risk from coronavirus. As the Prime Minister might have quipped, it was always going to end in tiers.

Mr Johnson is assailed from all quarters this weekend about how to manage the response to this second spike in coronavirus cases.

His Cabinet ministers signed off on the plans for a three tier scheme – dubbed traffic lights without any green or amber – three weeks ago to make sense of the different local lockdown rules.

England will be divided into one of three tiers, each of which will have predetermined restrictions. The challenge for Mr Johnson will be deciding the level of restrictions in those tiers.

Tier one is likely to see people expected to follow the 'rule of six' and maintain social distancing. Tier two could ban households from mixing in homes, gardens, pubs, bars or restaurants.

The top tier could see people ordered not to have any social contact with anyone outside their household together with the expected closures of pubs, bars and restaurants.

Government sources said that Mr Johnson now had all the information in his Prime Ministerial red box: it was just a question of him making the final decision about the degree of lockdowns.

One source said: "All the papers have been done and have gone into the box and are to be ruminated on over the weekend."

Another source added: "They are niggling and tweaking about what is what tier." 

Mr Johnson is still yet to decide whether to include hairdressers and leisure businesses in the top tier. Hotels could also be excluded from this group.

Other cities, such as Leeds and Sheffield, could fall in the top tier. There is also a debate about whether the tiers should be tightly drawn around larger cities, or include the suburbs where infections are less.

There were claims in Whitehall that the different curfew times could apply to the different tiers. One source said that in the lower tiers the curfew could be 11pm rather than the blanket 10pm. Sir Keir Starmer (below) has already called on the Government to review the 10pm curfew. 

But there is no time to waste. On Friday, MPs and peers were told by deputy chief medical officer Jonathan van Tam the situation is "critical" and analogous to where the UK was in early March before the full lockdown.

Jeremy Farrar, a prominent member of Sage, warned that there "needs to be action now" to prevent the pandemic "spiralling out of control". 

A Government minister told The Telegraph: "If we don't do something very quickly, I don't think we have even until Monday to wait.

"We are going to be in a position where our hospital admissions are going to be at exactly the same point that they were in the middle of the pandemic."

Yet the PM knows that the strictest lockdown will be felt in northern seats that the Tories must retain the seats at the next general election.

And on Thursday, 27 so-called 'red wall' Conservatives are launching a new group called the Northern Research Group which will use a combination of research and lobbying of the Government to make its case.

Former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, the group's founder, described the new group as "trade union for northern MPs" which will "reinvigorate the Conservative party in the North".

He told the Week in Westminster on BBC Radio 4 that it was "a sort of trade union for northern MPs, where we can use our collective muscle and bargaining power together, to make sure that we get the best possible deal on a pan-northern basis".

Chief whip Mark Spencer confirmed that MPs will approve them with a simple 'yes/no' vote on the floor of the House of Commons on Tuesday, before they come into force on Wednesday.

One Number 10 source said Mr Johnson had to balance the "central conundrum" of protecting local economies with keeping people safe from the virus as it spreads.

The insider said: "You have to look at the rising numbers of cases of hospitalisations and take steps to protect the NHS not just so people can be treated for Covid-19 but so they can get treatment for all of the other conditions that we would not be able to treat them for."

It is an enviable position for Mr Johnson. The source added: "He does not want to have to do this stuff. But there is no alternative."