Half of England now under tougher virus restrictions

Roughly half of England is now under tougher coronavirus restrictions, after the government on Thursday announced more stringent measures for London and seven other areas to try to cut surging numbers of cases.

But as ministers tightened the screw on social interaction to cut close-contact transmission, they sparked a furious row with leaders in northwest England, where infection rates are highest.

Talks broke down over the level of financial support available for people and businesses affected by plans for even tougher action.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham accused the government of being “willing to sacrifice jobs and businesses here to try and save them elsewhere”.

“Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region and Lancashire are being set up as the canaries in the coalmine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy,” he told reporters.

“Jobs, lives, businesses are at stake… (but) the package is just not good enough.”

Tighter restrictions that come into force in the eight new areas on Saturday ban households mixing indoors, limit groups meeting outside to six, and advise against non-essential travel.

Some nine million residents will be affected in London, and more than two million others in parts of the southeast, the Midlands, north, and northwest.

But taking into account swathes of mainly northern England already under restrictions, the total rises to just over 28 million — more than half of England’s 56 million people.

Large parts of Scotland and Wales and the whole of Northern Ireland are also subject to curbs, including closures of pubs and other hospitality venues.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, has refused mounting political and scientific pressure to impose a two-week “circuit-breaker” national lockdown.

Instead, he favours a targeted, local three-tier alert system based on infection rates, which are not evenly spread across the country.

On Thursday, Britain recorded nearly 19,000 new positive cases across the UK, while the number of deaths — 138 — was in triple digits for the third day running.

The announcement means London, Essex and Elmbridge in southeast England are now at the “high” level two of the tiered system.

Also on the list are northeast Derbyshire, Chesterfield and Erewash in east central England; Barrow-in-Furness, in the northwest; and the northern city of York. (AFP | Phil HAZLEWOOD)