Tory MPs warn Hancock against 'devastating cycle of repeated restrictions'

14 December 2020, 19:14 | Updated: 14 December 2020, 19:36

Tory MPs have spoken out against London's Tier 3 plans
Tory MPs have spoken out against London's Tier 3 plans. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Conservative MPs have challenged Health Secretary Matt Hancock to "end the devastating cycle of repeated restrictions" after he announced London would be placed under the toughest coronavirus Tier.

Mr Hancock said the capital and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will enter Tier 3 on Wednesday following a "very sharp, exponential rise" in cases, just weeks after they entered Tier 2 after the end of England's second national lockdown.

He told the Commons that a newly discovered variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 may be "associated with the faster spread" in the south of England and the increased measures were needed to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

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Read more: Sadiq Khan: Tier 3 'catastrophic' for London's hospitality industry

Tory backbenchers in regions that will be hit by the new measures, as well as those sceptical about lockdowns in other regions, expressed their concerns for the impact on businesses already struggling because of the economic fallout from the pandemic.

The Covid Recovery Group of Conservative lockdown sceptics said London and other parts of south-east England moving into Tier 3 "shows that the current strategy to combat Covid isn't working".

CRG chairman Mark Harper said the "endless cycle" needs to stop
CRG chairman Mark Harper said the "endless cycle" needs to stop. Picture: PA

CRG chairman Mark Harper, a former Tory chief whip, said in a statement: "We had a national lockdown in November, and since early December, 99% of the country has been under the heightened restrictions of Tiers 2 and 3.

"If this strategy was working at breaking the transmission of Covid, we would today be talking about areas moving down the tiers, or developing an exit strategy from repeated lockdowns.

"We must end the devastating cycle of repeated restrictions and lockdowns, recapture the public's support and confidence and start living in a sustainable way again."

Harlow MP Robert Halfon, a former minister who chairs the Commons education committee, told the Commons he has "real worries" about the measures inflicting further pain on hospitality businesses already "on their knees".

Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who represents Chingford and Woodford Green, called on Mr Hancock to "seek some kind of flexibility within this so it targets better the real risk and doesn't just hammer those that have been doing the right thing".

Kensington MP Felicity Buchan questioned why London was being "treated differently" from Essex and Hertfordshire in having the restrictions imposed across the whole area.

"In central London our cases are significantly below the national average and whether this House likes it or not, central London is the powerhouse of our national economy," she said.

Mr Hancock replied that he understood the economic impact but said case rates are rising both in London and in surrounding areas.

"The very clear public health advice was that London should move together because all areas of London are seeing an increase in rates and we need to stop that," he added.

Conservative MP Nickie Aiken said in a statement that Tier 3 restrictions in London will have "devastating economic consequences" but that she accepts they are needed to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Read more: ‘Disaster’ for London's hospitality industry as capital hit by Tier 3

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The Cities of London and Westminster representative added: "I've seen our pubs, bars and restaurants working incredibly hard under very difficult circumstances to keep us all safe, and this is going to hurt them."

But Mr Hancock argued "swift and decisive action" was needed to control the virus and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed before sufficient immunity is developed from the vaccine programme.

Hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent were already "under pressure", he warned, and said that the move is "absolutely essential" to prevent "more damaging and longer-lasting problems".

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Professor Kevin Fenton, London regional director for Public Health England, said now is a "pivotal moment" for London and the South East.

He told the briefing: "This is a pivotal moment for London and the South East of England.

"As we've heard from the chief medical officer numbers and rates of infection are now increasing exponentially in parts of the South East.

"And this means that quick and decisive action is needed.

"There is a strong connection between increases that we're seeing in London with parts of the south of Essex, as well as the South East region and it really is important that we are working together, coordinating carefully across the regions to ensure that we act to control the infection now."

He said Londoners should expect to see more messaging about coronavirus in the coming days urging people to "take heed, to follow the rules, and to follow the guidance for Tier 3 and to prepare for the holiday season ahead."

And England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said it was important to "take rapid action" as the number of hospital admissions in London and the surrounding areas increased.

He said during the press conference: "This uptick, which has not yet fed through into hospitals but will start to over the next week to 10 days, is on the background of already rising rates, which is already putting some pressure on some hospitals and considerable pressure on others.

"This will lead, inexorably, not only to Covid deaths directly, but it also leads importantly to displacing other health activity, which means other diseases are not being treated if we do not get on top of this quickly."

He added: "It's possible to turn this around with the tools we have."

It comes amid the news that the rate of new coronavirus cases has increased across every area of London as well as the parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.

Data also shows that the number of Covid-19 hospital admissions in the capital has risen to the highest level since April.

The latest data, published on Sunday, shows that coronavirus rates rose across every local authority area in London in the seven days to December 9 compared with the previous week.

It also rose across Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow, Epping Forest, Castle Point, Rochford, Maldon, Braintree, Chelmsford, Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea in Essex and Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and Three Rivers in Hertfordshire - all of which will go into Tier 3.

Basildon has the highest rate across these areas with 1,149 new cases recorded in the seven days to December 9 - the equivalent of 613.8 cases per 100,000 people.

This is up from 372.9 in the seven days to December 2.

Havering is in second place and has the highest rate in Greater London, which has risen from 321.3 to 506.3, with 1,314 new cases.

Brentwood is in third place where the rate has risen from 225.9 to 402.5, with 310 new cases.

The figures, for the seven days to December 9, are based on tests carried out in laboratories (pillar one of the Government's testing programme) and in the wider community (pillar two).

The rate is expressed as the number of new cases per 100,000 people.

Data for the most recent four days (December 10-13) has been excluded as it is incomplete and does not reflect the true number of cases.

Meanwhile, the most recent data also shows that there were 248 people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in London on December 9, the highest number since April 28 when there were also 248 Covid admissions.

The data, updated on Sunday, includes people admitted to hospital who tested positive for Covid-19 in the 14 days prior to admission, and those who tested positive in hospital after admission.

Inpatients diagnosed with Covid-19 after admission are reported as being admitted on the day prior to their diagnosis.

The data also shows that there were 2,092 confirmed Covid-19 patients in hospitals in London as of Saturday (December 12), the highest number since May 6 when there were 2,154.

There were also 256 Covid-19 patients in mechanical ventilation beds in London on Saturday, down from 261 the previous day.