Boris Johnson threatens to force tier 3 on Manchester leaders

PM presses Greater Manchester to accept new Covid measures without extra money for businesses

Boris Johnson has attempted to strong-arm Greater Manchester into accepting tougher Covid restrictions without providing extra money to protect businesses, by claiming that every day of delay would mean “more people will die”.

In a Downing Street press conference, the prime minister reiterated his threat to impose the tier 3 lockdown if an agreement could not be reached this weekend – and dismissed the idea of a short national “circuit break” to help bring down infection rates.

But Johnson appeared to be at odds once again with his chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who confirmed that government experts had pressed for a short nationwide shutdown – and said this measure would work any time.

This is also the preferred option of many northern leaders and the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, who has accused ministers of treating the region as a “sacrificial lamb”.

On Friday, Britain’s largest teaching union, the National Education Union (NEU), also urged a two-week half-term circuit break to help the government get control of the test, track and trace system.

Johnson and Vallance were giving a press conference in Downing Street as the prime minister sought to reassure the public that his tiered system of local restrictions, announced on Monday, was the right approach to containing the second wave of the virus.

Official figures showed there were 15,650 new cases on Friday, which was more than 3,000 below Thursday’s total of 18,980.

There were 136 deaths – the fourth successive day when the figure rose above 130.

But divisions between ministers and government scientists were highlighted once again when Vallance confirmed that he and other experts had recommended the two-week circuit breaker.

The strategy has been backed by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, who this week accused Johnson of failing to “follow the science”.

Explaining the decision to reject the scientific advice, Johnson said: “That’s the trade-off. It’s incredibly difficult, we think the local approach is the best one for now, that’s why we’re pushing so hard for it.”

He also pointed to wide variations in infection rates between regions.

“I don’t think it makes sense to be locking down the whole country when there’s such a difference in the infection rates across the UK.” But he repeatedly refused to rule out taking more draconian measures in the coming days.

He spoke after more than a million people in Lancashire were brought under tier 3 rules on Friday – the highest level of curbs.

However, local leaders made clear they had only reluctantly agreed a deal with the government, which included a financial support package. The new rules are due to take effect at midnight.

Announcing the deal, the government said it had promised to give Lancashire “a support package worth £12m” plus an unspecified package for “business support”.

But Mohammed Iqbal, the leader of Pendle council, said the actual figure was £42m, accusing the government of trying to hide the true amount “because they think Manchester and Liverpool and everyone else will be queueing up for it too”.

With London moving into tier 2 on Friday evening, as agreed with its mayor, Sadiq Khan, more than half the population of England will be living in areas classed as “high-risk” or “very high-risk” under the government’s three-tier system, equivalent to 28.4 million people.


Burnham and other Greater Manchester leaders have so far refused to cooperate with a plan to place their region in the toughest, tier 3 measures, however, demanding more support for workers, and funding for locally-led test and trace.

At a press conference on Thursday, Burnham accused Johnson of wanting to make Manchester the “sacrificial lamb”, to avoid a full lockdown elsewhere.

Exhorting Burnham to cooperate, Johnson said cases had doubled in the past nine days in Greater Manchester, and at the present rate of growth, “in just over two weeks there will be more Covid patients in intensive care than at the peak of the first wave”.

Burnham and the Greater Manchester leaders watched Johnson’s statement live during a meeting to discuss their next steps. One council boss said their resolve had not weakened.

On Friday night they released a statement saying they had waited all day for a promised meeting with Downing Street officials but it had not happened “despite being on standby all day”.

“We can also say with confidence that we have done, and will continue to do, everything within our power to protect the health of our residents, including being the first area in the country to agree to local restrictions back in July. We are not convinced that closing hospitality venues is the only way to protect hospitals and we want to look at other measures such as reinstating shielding arrangements and introducing tougher instant closure powers on non-compliant pubs, restaurants, shops and other business premises.”

There remains a chasm between what Burnham and Greater Manchester’s 10 leaders are demanding in return for accepting the imposition of tier 3, and what the government is offering.

The combined authority has modelled how much it would cost to compensate all of the businesses and workers affected by the measures.

“It will cost £62m per month to fund the difference between what they’ve offered and what we want,” said one leader. “I doubt they will give us that because even they aren’t convinced that it will be only for four weeks, despite what they say.”

They complained that the government was still offering just £8 per head of population – about £22.4m for 2.8 million people for improved test and trace capacity and enforcement of restrictions, in addition to paying two-thirds of the salaries of hospitality workers.

Quick guide

What are the three tiers of England’s Covid lockdown system?

Tier one – medium
  • The “rule of six” applies, meaning socialising in groups larger than six people is prohibited whether indoors or outdoors.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work and are not counted as being part of the six-person limit.
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate but pubs and restaurants must ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and close between 10pm and 5am.
  • Takeaway food can continue to be sold after 10pm if ordered by phone or online.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but people must not mingle in a group of more than six.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people who can attend (15 and 30 respectively).
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors, and – if the rule of six is followed – indoors.
Tier two – high
  • People are prohibited from socialising with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work.
  • The rule of six continues to apply for socialising outdoors, for instance in a garden or public space like a park or beach.
  • Businesses and venues can continue to operate but pubs and restaurants must ensure customers only consume food and drink while seated, and close between 10pm and 5am.
  • Takeaway food can continue to be sold after 10pm if ordered online or by phone.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but people must not mingle in a group of more than six.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people who can attend (15 and 30 respectively).
  • Exercise classes and organised sport can continue to take place outdoors but will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with those they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport.
  • Travel is permitted to amenities that are open, for work or to access education, but people are advised to reduce the number of journeys where possible.
Tier three – very high
  • People are prohibited from socialising with anybody they do not live with, or have not formed a support bubble with, in any indoor setting, private garden or at most outdoor hospitality venues and ticketed events.
  • Tradespeople can continue to go into a household for work.
  • The rule of six continues to apply to outdoor public spaces, such as parks, beaches, public gardens or sports venues.
  • Pubs and bars are only permitted to remain open to operate as restaurants, in which case alcohol can only be served as part of a substantial meal.
  • Schools and universities remain open.
  • Places of worship remain open but household mixing is not permitted.
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of people attending (15 and 30 respectively) but wedding receptions are not allowed.
  • The rules for exercise classes and organised sport are the same as in tier 2. They can continue to take place outdoors but will only be permitted indoors if it is possible for people to avoid mixing with people they do not live with (or share a support bubble with), or for youth or disability sport. However, in Merseyside, gyms were ordered to close when it entered tier 3.
  • Travelling outside a very high alert level area or entering a very high alert level area should be avoided other than for things such as work, education or youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if travelling through as part of a longer journey.
  • Residents of a tier 3 area should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK, while people who live in a tier 1 or tier 2 area should avoid staying overnight in a very high alert level area.

Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Another senior Greater Manchester source said the region not only wanted more money but also clarity on the timescale of restrictions – “what the exit strategy is” – and also for “more confidence in the epidemiology when even Chris Whitty said he wasn’t at all confident tier 3 would work”.

At the press conference, Vallance echoed Whitty’s warning that even the maximum tier 3 restrictions might not be enough to reduce the R number for coronavirus below one, meaning the number of cases declines rather than grows.

He said: “As the chief medical officer said, tier 3 baseline conditions on their own almost certainly aren’t enough to get the R below one, but if you go up to higher levels in tier 3, then they should be enough, provided they are fully implemented, and we all stick to them.”

In an attempt to strike an upbeat note, Johnson highlighted progress in developing faster, saliva-based tests for Covid-19, and stressed that tier 3 areas of the country would have priority access to the new kits.

“Over the next few weeks we will start distributing and trialling these tests across the country,” he said. “This will enable us to do quick turnaround tests on NHS and care home staff much more frequently. By testing more frequently and quickly than ever before, we can hope we can help prevent the virus entering and spreading through care homes.” However, he stressed that the new system would take time to establish.