New UK lockdown would be disaster but all options open: PM
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday said a new UK-wide lockdown would be a "disaster" but refused to rule it out as demands grew for a temporary shutdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer has thrown his weight behind a two-week "circuit break" to stop a surge in cases of Covid-19, after the proposal was endorsed by the government's scientific advisory committee.
Devolved authorities in Northern Ireland added to the pressure Wednesday by announcing plans to shut pubs and restaurants for four weeks, tighten restrictions on social gatherings and extend the mid-term school break to counter soaring case numbers there.
Johnson is reportedly mulling a similar move in England -- for which the UK government has jurisdiction on health issues -- which experts suggest could coincide with school half-term holiday starting on October 23.
The Conservative leader is desperate to avoid a repeat of the devastating outbreak in March when coronavirus swept across the UK, leaving more than 43,000 confirmed deaths so far -- the worst toll from the pandemic in Europe.
But his own MPs are also railing against anything that would inflict further damage on an economy set to shrink by almost ten percent this year, according to the IMF.
In a bad-tempered exchange with Starmer in the House of Commons, Johnson insisted: "We will do whatever it takes to fight this virus and to defeat it."
But he said the regional approach he outlined only on Monday, with England divided into three levels of restrictions depending on the severity of the local outbreak, was the best approach.
"The whole point is to seize this moment now to avoid the misery of another national lockdown into which he wants to go headlong, by delivering a regional solution," Johnson said.
If properly implemented, he said the plan would reduce the reproduction (R) rate of the virus "that we need in order to avert what none of us want to see... and that is the disaster of a national lockdown. We don't want to go there."
However, Starmer accused the prime minister of being "behind the curve" and ignoring the science, warning that "time is running out" to take decisive action.
The northwest English city of Liverpool was the first to be put in the highest risk category, and a ban on household mixing and pub closures came into force Wednesday for at least four weeks.
City council member Paul Brant told the BBC that intensive care units in the city were more than 90% full, with coronavirus patients making up an increasing proportion.
"I believe that this lockdown is right because that's the only way that we'll survive. If we just carry on and carry on, it'll spread and spread and spread," said Liverpool resident Jerry MacNally, 61.
But others are growing frustrated. Retired local Lynn Curtis told AFP: "I think it's a huge overreaction, I just don't think there's any need for such drastic steps."
Many lawmakers in Johnson's Conservatives have argued against new measures on the basis of the economic damage and associated risks to long-term health.
In a symbolic vote late Tuesday in the Commons on a 10pm curfew already introduced for pubs and restaurants in England, 42 Tory MPs rebelled against the government, calling for a different strategy.
"There is no silver bullet and without one, although difficult, we must learn to live with the virus," said one, Imran Ahmad Khan. "The continued peaks and troughs are unsustainable and offer false hope."