Tougher Covid restrictions affecting millions more come into force

Coronavirus Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Millions more people will be under tougher coronavirus restrictions in the next 24 hours as the Government increased financial support for businesses and employees affected by the measures.

Greater Manchester moved into the highest alert level, Tier 3, on Friday morning, and Wales will introduce its two-week “firebreak” lockdown at 6pm.

Coventry, Stoke and Slough will enter Tier 2 on Saturday, while talks between Westminster and civic leaders in Nottingham over possible Tier 3 restrictions are continuing on Friday.

Under Tier 3 measures in Greater Manchester, pubs and bars will be closed, unless they are serving substantial meals, for a 28-day period, along with casinos, bingo halls and bookies.

Covid tiers: - What are the differences between each alert level?

  • Medium (Tier 1) - Rule of six applies indoors and outdoors. Pubs and restaurants close at 10pm.

  • High (Tier 2) - Households must not mix indoors in any setting including pubs and restaurants. Rule of six applies outdoors

  • Very high (Tier 3) - Households must not mix indoors, or in private gardens. Rule of six applies in outdoor spaces including parks. Pubs and bars which don't serve meals will be closed

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an emergency multi-billion pound bailout on Thursday aimed at supporting workers and firms through the second coronavirus wave.

The Job Support Scheme, which replaces the current furlough system from November 1, will be made more generous in an effort to persuade firms to keep staff in work.

There will also be grants of up to £2,100 a month available for firms in Tier 2 areas of England, aimed at helping hospitality and leisure venues which have seen takings plummet due to restrictions on households mixing.

The package could cost the Exchequer around £13 billion over six months.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Barclay conceded that the schemes are a "significant cost to the taxpayer" but said it responded to the spread of the virus and the needs of business leaders "who we're working closely with and listening to."

He said that Greater Manchester leaders were seeking "better terms" than other Tier 3 areas such as Liverpool and Lancashire.

He added: "We've had very constructive discussions with local leaders in those rights but it's right that for the replacement of the furlough (scheme) we have a national approach.

"The Job Support Scheme does that and that is the right way to move forward."

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds described the Government's response to Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas as "chaotic".

"We've had a number of parts of the country under Tier 2 for quite a long time," Ms Dodds said. "And yet Government only seemed to wake up to that yesterday when they put in extra support for Tier 2 areas."

She added: "For those Tier 3 areas, the ones with the really strict restrictions, Government said it was having negotiations with different areas but actually it seems to have already decided how much money it will be providing for businesses in those different areas so to describe this as a negotiation is really problematic."

The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the test and trace system, which he previously promised would be “world beating”, needed to be improved.

He said turnaround times for tests needed to be faster, after it emerged that just one in seven people having a test at a centre get their result back in 24 hours.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance also said problems with the system could be “diminishing the effectiveness” and there was “room for improvement”.

Ms Dodds said that continuing with regional lockdowns is costing the economy.

"We've calculated it's costing our economy around £110 billion not just because of those restrictions in different areas but predominantly actually because it is impacting on people's willingness to go out and spend or businesses' willingness to go out and spend because they're nervous about the future.

"If we did have a circuit breaker, then we would be able to get more of a grip on the virus if we used that time to fix Test, Trace and Isolate.

"We are running out of time, that window of opportunity when the half term holiday could have been used for that approach sadly is closing right now. It is unfortunate that the Government hasn't listened on this, not just to Labour but to its own advisers in the Sage committee."

However, Mr Barclay said a circuit breaker would not be the right approach.

He said: "It would not be targeted at those areas where we need most to get the virus down.

"So it's about getting the balance right between taking the action to get the virus down in a targeted way but doing so in a way that enables as many businesses to come back, to protect as many jobs as possible and to get that balance between reopening the economy, protecting jobs but doing so in a way that addresses the height of the virus in those areas that need further restrictions."

A total of 101,494 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once in the week to October 14, according to the latest Test and Trace figures, the highest weekly figure since the system was launched in late May.

But just 59.6% of close contacts of people who tested positive were reached through the Test and Trace system, its worst performance yet.

In other developments:

– Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance declined to rule out a “digital Christmas” in England due to social restrictions that “will need to be in place for a while”, after a medical adviser to Nicola Sturgeon warned that large family gatherings would be “fiction” this year.

– The Government said a further 189 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, as of Thursday in the UK, while 21,242 lab-confirmed positive cases were recorded.

– Spain’s Canary Islands, Denmark, the Maldives and the Greek island Mykonos have been added to the Government’s list of travel corridors, while Liechtenstein has lost its quarantine exemption.

– The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said analysing sewage for traces of coronavirus has helped officials spot spikes in Covid-19 cases in areas where relatively few people were being tested.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

The Chancellor’s package of extra support, announced just days after London was moved into Tier 2, provoked fury from northern politicians who have seen their economies suffer due to long-standing coronavirus curbs.

In an effort to address that criticism, Mr Sunak said the business grants will be available retrospectively for areas which have already been subject to restrictions since August, and come on top of higher levels of additional business support for areas moving into Tier 3.

Around 150,000 businesses in England could be eligible, the Treasury said, at a potential cost of more than £1 billion.

The changes to the Job Support Scheme will apply across the country and could cost the Exchequer £6 billion if two million people take up the offer for the entire six months of the scheme.

Instead of only being open to people in “viable” jobs working a third of their normal hours, it will now cover employees doing just 20% of their usual work who will receive at least 73% of their usual pay.

The amount that employers are required to pay to top up their wages has also been reduced to just 5% of unworked hours, down from 33%.

Extra help for the self-employed will see the amount covered by grants increase from 20% of profits to 40%, meaning the maximum payout will increase from £1,875 to £3,750.

This will amount to a potential further £3.1 billion of support to the self-employed through November to January, with a further grant to follow covering February to April.