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New hope Britain could AVOID new national lockdown as study shows R rate is FALLING

New hope Britain could AVOID new national lockdown as study shows R rate is FALLING

Boris Johnson’s rallying cry to the nation to keep fighting coronavirus has been bolstered by new figures showing the infection rate started slowing after restrictions were tightened.

In the strongest evidence yet that local lockdowns are working, results from the largest Covid-19 study in England found the R-rate fell from 1.7 to around 1.1 this month.

The director of the study by Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori said the interim findings from 80,000 participants ‘reinforced the need for protective measures’ to help extinguish the virus. 

That restrictions are seemingly helping to stem the spread of Covid-19 will help the Prime Minister’s case for imposing curbs to flatten the second wave. 

At a Downing Street press conference last night, Mr Johnson, flanked by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, vowed not to ‘throw in the sponge’ and capitulate to demands to abandon his strategy. 

Critics have argued that the recent suite of measures, including local lockdowns and national restrictions such as 10pm curfews on pubs, are ineffective but are laying waste to the economy and infringing civil liberties. 

While the rate of infection appears to be falling, the study, commissioned by the Department for Health, found that of the volunteers tested between September 18-26, one in 200 people had coronavirus.

It also revealed the virus to be spreading more among young people, while simultaneously laying bare the North-South divide, pointing to the north west as the epicentre of the UK’s outbreak.

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial from the School of Public Health, said: ‘While our latest findings show some early evidence that the growth of new cases may have slowed, suggesting efforts to control the infection are working, the prevalence of infection is the highest that we have recorded to date.

‘This reinforces the need for protective measures to limit the spread of the disease and the public’s adherence to these, which will be vital to minimise further significant illness and loss of life from Covid-19.’ 

In other developments:

  • The UK recorded 7,108 more coronavirus cases and another 71 deaths yesterday — including a three-month high of seven in Scotland;
  • The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane called for optimism on the country’s prospects, warning that a ‘Chicken Licken’ attitude could harm the recovery; 
  • Ministers fear that the public is showing increasing signs of ‘lockdown fatigue’ as the pandemic drags on and the rules become more complicated.

Boris Johnson’s rallying cry to the nation to keep fighting coronavirus has been bolstered by new figures showing the infection rate started slowing after restrictions were tightened (PM pictured leaving Cabinet yesterday)

In the strongest evidence yet that local lockdowns are working, results from the largest Covid-19 study in England found the R-rate fell from 1.7 to around 1.1

The Imperial College and Ipsos Mori study laid bare the North-South divide, pointing to the north west as the epicentre of the UK’s outbreak

The north west of England, which has seen areas such as Burnley and Liverpool (pictured) placed under local restrictions, had the highest levels of infection while the number of infections

The latest Imperial College study found 55 people per 10,000 tested positive, which is an increase on 13 people per 10,000 from the previous study between August 24 and September 7. 

Extrapolating, the data suggests 411,000 people in England have the virus, meaning over one in 200 people were infected at any one time.

Findings also show that the prevalence of infection was the highest among those aged 18-24 – with one in 100 people infected – while cases increased seven-fold in those aged over 65 from 0.04 per cent to 0.29 per cent compared to the last report.

The north-west of England, which has seen areas such as Burnley and Liverpool placed under local restrictions, had the highest levels of infection while the number of infections in London increased five-fold from 0.10 per cent to 0.49 per cent.

The final report and findings of all 150,000 volunteers tested between September 18 and October 5 will be published next week.  

Half of the volunteers who tested positive did not have symptoms at the time of testing or the week before, but it was noted that this did not mean they did not later develop symptoms.  

The study also found people of Asian and black ethnicity are twice as likely to have the virus compared to white people.   

Mr Johnson yesterday insisted the country knows how to drive down the virus because ‘we did it before’. And in warning the UK had reached a ‘critical moment’, he vowed not to ‘throw in the sponge’ and pledged to bring in tougher measures if needed. 

In a defiant message to Tory hawks desperate to reopen the economy faster, the PM insisted that letting the virus ‘take its course’, in a Sweden-style approach, risked overwhelming the NHS and causing thousands more deaths. He also warned it was too early to judge whether the Rule of Six and 10pm curfew were working.

Top experts have repeatedly warned that Britain needs to learn to live with Covid-19 because it will be with us for generations. Businesses fear tougher measures — similar to ones imposed in the first draconian lockdown — would cripple the economy even further.  

The Government is desperate to avoid the virus suddenly running out of control, but there is evidence this is not on the cards at the moment

The Prime Minister displayed the latest slides on the status of coronavirus at the No10 press conference tonight

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief science officer Patrick Vallance were in Whitehall yesterday for the Cabinet meeting

Mr Johnson addressed the nation alongside his chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, despite coming under intense pressure drop scientists from such briefings amid complaints they are being used as ‘propaganda’ to back up increasingly draconian restrictions. 

The trio presented maps that starkly exposed the North-South coronavirus divide. And official data shows that the average number of positive tests each day is at least twice as high in North West England as in any other region, and that Scotland’s cases are 14 times higher than they were at the beginning of August, outpacing England’s outbreak.

An average 1,595 cases of Covid-19 are being diagnosed in the North West every day now, compared to just 150 in the South West, while Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East face the second highest infection rates. All of the 10 areas with the worst case-per-person ratios are in the north, while eight of 10 of those with the lowest are in the south. Professor Whitty said there was a ‘heavy concentration’ of coronavirus towards the top of England. 

In a plea to the public the Prime Minister said: ‘If we put in the work together now then we give ourselves the best possible chance of avoiding that outcome and avoiding further measures.’

‘I know some people will think we should give up and let the virus take its course despite the huge loss of life that would potentially entail. I have to say I profoundly disagree. I don’t think that is what the British people want. I don’t think they want to throw in the sponge. They want to fight and defeat this virus and that is what we are going to do.’ 

‘Even as we fight Covid, it is vital that people get all the treatment they need for other conditions. But I must be clear, if the NHS were to be overwhelmed by covid, then no-one could get any such care.’ 

Highlighting the sharp rise in infections and defending his recent comments warning that the UK could see 50,000 coronavirus cases a day by mid-October, Sir Patrick said grimly: ‘Things are definitely going in the wrong direction.’ 

Professor Whitty slapped back at critics, saying they had accused him of being ‘too optimistic and too pessimistic on numbers’. But he said that in March the government failed to recognise how fast the virus was spreading and the mistake could not be repeated. In a gloomy message, he said: ‘We have a long winter ahead of us.’ 

Earlier, Mr Johnson finally bowed to demand to give MPs a vote before any fresh lockdown restrictions – after furious Speaker Lindsay Hoyle blasted him for treating the Commons with ‘contempt’.

Data presented by Professor Whitty in the televised briefing showed a clear north-south divide in the coronavirus infections across England. 

The scientific advisers admitted the top half of the country is clearly worse affected than the bottom, but insisted ‘it would be wrong’ to think the problem isn’t nationwide.

A heat map of infection rates across the country showed that almost all of the South West, South East, East Midlands and the East of England were shaded in the lightest possible colour, meaning the numbers of cases are below the average for England.

WHY IS THE OUTBREAK NOW CENTERED IN THE NORTH?

Gloomy government statistics wheeled out at the No10 press conference tonight show cases are rocketing in the North and in Scotland.

But Boris Johnson or Downing St’s top two scientific advisers, Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty were unable to offer any explanation as to why.

Top scientists have speculated it could be down to the North having lower levels of immunity from Britain’s first wave in the spring.

For instance, government advisers estimate around 17 per cent of people living in the capital have developed Covid-19 antibodies — suggesting they have already had and beaten the virus. But the rate for the rest of the UK is believed to be lower than 10 per cent.

Academics warned the virus would have thrived in London before the lockdown on March 23, because of how densely populated the city of 9million is, with buses and Tubes packed full. Thousands of tourists — who possibly could have been carrying the disease — were also allowed to fly in and enjoy the capital’s attractions without being checked.   

One expert did not play down the theory that the North could now be being battered by the second wave because of its gloomier weather. Several studies have explored the possible link between weather and Covid-19 outbreaks but have yet to make a clear consensus. 

Manchester’s average temperature in August is around 16C (60F) but drops to below 13C (55F) in September — the two months when cases began to spiral in the North West. It is even colder in Scotland.

For reference, London is only slightly warmer than Manchester. The capital’s average temperature stands at around 19C (66F) in August and 17C (63F) in September.

Dr John McCauley, one of the world’s most eminent scientists on flu, told MailOnline that people are driven inside when it is raining and cold. But he admitted it would be very ‘tricky’ to firm up the link.

Dr McCauley, of London’s Francis Crick Institute, pointed to flu outbreaks in Ireland and Poland, where the climates are ‘very different’ but the seasonality of the virus is ‘pretty similar’. 

Poland’s winter can see temperatures regularly dip below freezing, forcing people to stay inside. Ireland tends to be battered by heavy winds and rain.  

Cold and flu viruses are known to thrive indoors, and experts say the coronavirus — which spreads through coughs, sneezes, and breathing — will be no exception to the trend. 

Respiratory viruses also prefer the winter because people spend more time together indoors, where they are forced into closer contact than they would be in the park in summer. The closer together people are, the more likely they are to spread the virus between them.  

Dr McCauley also told MailOnline the outbreak in the North could simply be down to bad luck.  

But Professor Anthony Brookes, an expert in genomics at the University of Leicester, said researchers ‘struggle’ to understand what is truly going on because of a lack of data on testing for the different regions. 

‘They do release for whole country, but per region per day – that’s what’s missing. That makes it difficult to dissect what’s going on in different regions at different times. We are only left with number of positive cases detected.

‘Nevertheless, given that caveat about not having the number of tests done per day per region, one can estimate this.

‘And doing so suggests there really is no second wave in London. That is, however, quite the opposite is true up north.’ 

The average infection rate for the country as a whole was 35.7 cases per 100,000 as at Public Health England’s latest official update last Friday.

Colour-coding showed the problem is worst in the North West around Liverpool and Manchester and also in the far North East, towards Newcastle. 

Much of those two regions and the West Midlands – and to a lesser extent London and Cornwall – were shown in a darker colour, indicating case rates are near or above average.  

Professor Whitty said: ‘At this point in time there is a very heavy concentration in particular areas – in particular in the North West, the North East and parts of the Midlands…

‘There’s a general increase [in the rate of infection] across the whole of England and the same is also true in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland… but a very rapid increase in particular areas; again, particularly in the North East, North West and areas of the Midlands [but] not exclusively.’ 

Numbers of positive tests reported by the Department of Health reflect what was shown in the map, with the North West reporting significantly more cases than any other region.

In the week up to September 23 – the most recent data available – there were an average of 1,595 cases diagnosed each day in the crisis-hit region.

This was more than double the 663 daily average in Yorkshire and the Humber, three times as high as the 564 in the West Midlands and 551 in the North East.

It blows the more southern regions, except London (471 per day), out of the water.

In the East Midlands there were 274 cases per day over the same seven-day period, along with 227 in the South East, 185 in the East of England and just 150 in the South West.

This means that the looming threat of a national lockdown, which Mr Johnson yesterday said he didn’t want to resort to but would if he had to, places millions of people at risk of being lumped under tight restrictions because of the actions of people hundreds of miles away.

MPs have already cautioned against ‘broad brush’ tactics that see people in less-affected areas unfairly punished.

But Sir Patrick Vallance insisted: ‘It would be wrong to take from this that this is a problem that’s only in certain areas.

‘It is worse in certain areas but there is evidence of spread everywhere, and we need to be mindful of that and everyone needs to take precautions across the country.’  

The images presented at the briefing mirror what is shown in Public Health England’s data. 

Of the 48 areas in the ‘intervention’ category on PHE’s watchlist, none are further south than the Midlands. 

Birmingham and nearby Sandwell, as well as Leicester and Oadby and Wigston, are the furthest south areas to have any local lockdown measures in place.

Eight out of 10 areas with the lowest infection rates per 100,000 people are in the south of England – the Isle of Wight, Somerset, East Sussex, Dorset, Devon, Wokingham, Swindon and Torbay. Suffolk in the East and Herefordshire in the West Midlands complete the list.

And all 10 of the areas with the highest infection rates are in the north – Bolton, South Tyneside, Blackburn with Darwen, Knowsley, Halton, Liverpool, Bury, Newcastle, Manchester and Oldham. 

Frustration is growing with local lockdowns in these areas, however, and MailOnline understands Cabinet hawks are increasingly frustrated by the dire warnings from the medical and science chiefs about a second wave. 

Former Downing Street aides have been calling on the government to take the experts out of the limelight, warning they are not great communicators and it gave the impression decisions were clear cut rather than a matter of judgement for ministers.  

CASES ARE RISING QUICKER IN SCOTLAND THAN IN ENGLAND, DATA SHOWS 

Official testing data shows that the number of cases is rising significantly faster in Scotland than it is in England.

Although there are fewer infections north of the border, the daily average number of cases is now almost 14 times higher than it was at the beginning of August, whereas England’s has increased five-fold in comparison.

The figures suggested Scotland outbreak is accelerating at a rate three times higher than England’s.

In the first week of August there were an average 38 cases per day diagnosed in Scotland. This rolling average has since surged 1,252 per cent to 514 yesterday.

In England, meanwhile, the average of 807 cases per day recorded in the first week of August has risen by a comparatively smaller 445 per cent up to September 28.

Today’s and yesterday’s data cannot be used for the comparison because the numbers are low as the positive tests are not all recorded on the day.

And Scotland’s cases surged to an all-time high of 806 on September 29 up from a low of just two positive cases on July 7.

Meanwhile England’s hit a ceiling of 7,143 yesterday, September 29, up from a low point of 398 on July 14.

England’s increase has been of around 1,700 per cent – some 17 times higher – while Scotland’s has boomed more than 400 times over.

The increase will be particularly worrying and disappointing for the nation, which came closer than any other part of the UK to wiping out the disease, with a month-long spell without a single death between July 17 and July 18.

Senior Conservative Sir Bernard Jenkin upped the ante by swiping that the government is using ‘science as propaganda’.  

Prof Whitty told the Downing Street briefing there was a ‘significant rise’ in test positivity in the north-east and north-west of England, and Yorkshire and Humber.

‘This increase is accelerating quite rapidly in some of those areas,’ he said.

He said that rates in school age children ‘are really not changing very much’.

But he said hospitalisation is rising, particularly in hotspots, though the figures remain ‘in a much lower level than at the beginning of April’. 

Professor Whitty added: ‘We are pointing out that the direction of travel for both hospitals and intensive care is going in the wrong direction, particularly in these areas that have seen rapid increases in cases.’

Sir Patrick said: ‘It is very clear that rates are still going up. And, so, we don’t have this under control at the moment.

‘And the increases that Chris (Whitty) has described in some areas are of concern, and… will lead to further problems.’

Mr Johnson said the way the virus is spreading may be different now to the way it was in March.

‘We are seeing some very clear local peaks,’ he said.

‘It may be that this is a more localised phenomenon this time in which case all the more reason for us to concentrate on these local solutions as well as these national solutions.’

Professor Whitty said that although the virus was not doubling as quickly as it was in March, the numbers could pick up again quickly.

‘This small number of deaths now shouldn’t reassure us that we won’t be, in relatively short order, in quite difficult places, certainly in the regions where we are seeing significant growth at the moment.’

The North-South divide was highlighted after Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham warned that coronavirus could be worse for the north of England than Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Burnham said local restrictions to combat the spread of the virus could ‘massively increase’ England’s North-South divide and called for more support for businesses in Bolton, which has the strictest lockdown measures in the region.

The Conservative leader of Bolton Council, David Greenhalgh, also said he was pleading with the Government to recognise the disparity between boroughs as he claimed the town’s hospitality businesses had been ‘thrown to the lions’.

Speaking at a weekly coronavirus press briefing, Mr Burnham said: ‘If we go into a winter with the north under local restrictions, millions of people under restrictions, businesses suffering because of those restrictions, no support for those businesses, we are going to see a widening of the north-south divide.

WHITTY SAYS CASES ARE NOT SPIRALLING OUT OF CONTROL IN SCHOOLS

Coronavirus cases are not spiralling out of control in schools, Professor Chris Whitty insisted tonight.

England’s Chief Medical Officer said rates are not going up for school-age children — under the age of 16. And in tonight’s Number 10 press conference, he claimed the trend was true ‘across the country’. 

But he warned this wasn’t the case for 17 to 21 year olds, where outbreaks are getting bigger ‘quite rapidly’.

The figures come after unions and scientists warned that the return of schools would cause an explosion in cases which, although children do not seem to get ill with Covid-19, could have put the health of staff and parents at risk.

Justifying his claims about schools in a clear graph, Professor Whitty presented official data on test positivity rates for five different age groups. 

Test positivity reveals how many people who think they have Covid-19 actually do and is a measure that can be used to track infections without the influence of the total numbers of cases, which can fluctuate unreliably as more or fewer tests are carried out.

Professor Whitty’s data that he pointed to showed test positivity rates have soared to around 12.9 per cent among 19 to 21 year olds, doubling from 6 per cent at the start of the month. But he failed to offer any explanation as to why. 

The data presented at tonight’s press conference — which saw Boris Johnson warn of a second lockdown unless the outbreak tails off — also showed the test positivity rate has jumped to around 9.6 per cent in 17 and 18 year olds. 

For comparison, it had stayed fairly stable at below 7.5 per cent in the first two weeks of September. 

But rates have barely changed among five to 10 year olds (1.5 per cent), 11 to 14 year olds (2.2 per cent) and 15 and 16 year olds (3.8 per cent).

‘If you look back in years to come you’ll think Covid-19 did more harm to the north of England than Margaret Thatcher and whatever she did in the 1980s.

‘This is a real danger that is staring us right in the face.

‘A government that says it wants to level up cannot put the north of England under restrictions without support. It’s pretty much as simple as that.’

He said he believed Bolton, where restaurants and pubs are only allowed to provide takeaway food and drink, had been ‘forgotten about’ by national politicians.

He added: ‘There are many places today that have a higher case rate than Bolton but their hospitality remains open and it’s this lack of consistency that I think is making people lose faith in what is going on.

‘The sense of injustice in Bolton is very, very real today.

‘I would say it’s simple – either the Government closes hospitality in areas with higher case rates, with full compensation by the way.

‘If they’re not prepared to do that, they should let Bolton open. It’s got to be one or the other.’

Mr Greenhalgh told BBC News the restrictions, imposed earlier this month, were ‘breeding resentment’ among residents.

He said: ‘I still think there’s an element of Government, because the restrictions are so complex, that doesn’t understand the huge disparities there are up and down the country.’

Earlier, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the concessions in the House, saying the government would ‘consult Parliament’ on any England-wide or UK-wide restrictions, and a vote will be held in advance ‘wherever possible’.

‘Today I can confirm to the House that for significant national measures, with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide, we will consult Parliament – wherever possible we will hold votes before such regulations come into force,’ he said.

‘But of course responding to the virus means that the Government must act with speed when required and we cannot hold up urgent regulations which are needed to control the virus and save lives.’

Sir Graham Brady, who led the Tory revolt, welcomed the climbdown – which followed weeks of rising tensions with the backbenches. 

The move came after Sir Lindsay delivered an extraordinary rebuke, complaining that sweeping powers for ministers to deal with the public health crisis were being abused.

Reading the riot act to the PM as he sat silently in the chamber, Sir Lindsay made clear that he is ready to side with dozens of Tory rebels and opposition parties to ensure more scrutiny – warning that the government’s must act now to restore ‘trust’.

DATA CONFIRMS NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE IN ENGLAND 

Data presented by Professor Whitty in the televised briefing showed a clear north-south divide in the coronavirus infections across England.

Cases are clearly surging faster and to higher levels across the North West and North East of the country, while the South West and South East look almost unaffected. 

The scientific advisers admitted the top half of the country is clearly worse affected than the bottom, but insisted ‘it would be wrong’ to think the problem isn’t nationwide.

A heat map of infection rates across the country showed that almost all of the South West, South East, East Midlands and the East of England were shaded in the lightest possible colour, meaning the numbers of cases are below the average for England.

The average infection rate for the country as a whole was 35.7 cases per 100,000 as at Public Health England’s latest official update last Friday.

Colour-coding showed the problem is worst in the North West around Liverpool and Manchester and also in the far North East, towards Newcastle. 

Much of those two regions and the West Midlands – and to a lesser extent London and Cornwall – were shown in a darker colour, indicating case rates are near or above average.  

Professor Whitty said: ‘At this point in time there is a very heavy concentration in particular areas – in particular in the North West, the North East and parts of the Midlands…

‘There’s a general increase [in the rate of infection] across the whole of England and the same is also true in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland… but a very rapid increase in particular areas; again, particularly in the North East, North West and areas of the Midlands [but] not exclusively.’ 

Numbers of positive tests reported by the Department of Health reflect what was shown in the map, with the North West reporting significantly more cases than any other region.

In the week up to September 23 – the most recent data available – there were an average of 1,595 cases diagnosed each day in the crisis-hit region.

This was more than double the 663 daily average in Yorkshire and the Humber, three times as high as the 564 in the West Midlands and 551 in the North East.

It blows the more southern regions, except London (471 per day), out of the water.

In the East Midlands there were 274 cases per day over the same seven-day period, along with 227 in the South East, 185 in the East of England and just 150 in the South West.

This means that the looming threat of a national lockdown, which Mr Johnson today said he didn’t want to resort to but would if he had to, places millions of people at risk of being lumped under tight restrictions because of the actions of people hundreds of miles away.

MPs have already cautioned against ‘broad brush’ tactics that see people in less-affected areas unfairly punished.

But Sir Patrick Vallance insisted in today’s conference: ‘It would be wrong to take from this that this is a problem that’s only in certain areas.

‘It is worse in certain areas but there is evidence of spread everywhere, and we need to be mindful of that and everyone needs to take precautions across the country.’  

The images presented at the briefing mirror what is shown in Public Health England’s data. 

Of the 48 areas in the ‘intervention’ category on PHE’s watchlist, none are further south than the Midlands. 

Birmingham and nearby Sandwell, as well as Leicester and Oadby and Wigston, are the furthest south areas to have any local lockdown measures in place.

Eight out of 10 areas with the lowest infection rates per 100,000 people are in the south of England – the Isle of Wight, Somerset, East Sussex, Dorset, Devon, Wokingham, Swindon and Torbay. Suffolk in the East and Herefordshire in the West Midlands complete the list.

And all 10 of the areas with the highest infection rates are in the north – Bolton, South Tyneside, Blackburn with Darwen, Knowsley, Halton, Liverpool, Bury, Newcastle, Manchester and Oldham.

‘The Government must make greater efforts to prepare measures more quickly, so that this House can debate and decide upon the most significant measures at the earliest possible point,’ he said. 

‘I am now looking to the Government to rebuild the trust with this House and not treat it with the contempt that it has shown.’  

The Speaker did reject an amendment tabled by Tory rebels to a motion renewing the Coronavirus Act powers, that would have forced votes before new measures are imposed – saying it would breach parliamentary procedure. However, the intervention was enough to trigger an immediate shift from the government.  

In an extraordinary attack in the Commons – which Mr Johnson had to sit and listen to – Sir Lindsay slammed the way the government was railroading through restrictions. 

‘The way in which the Government has exercised its powers to make secondary legislation during this crisis has been totally unsatisfactory,’ he said.

‘All too often, important statutory instruments have been published a matter of hours before they come into force, and some explanations why important measures have come into effect before they can be laid before this House have been unconvincing and shows a total disregard for the House.

‘The Government must make greater efforts to prepare measures more quickly, so that this House can debate and decide upon the most significant measures at the earliest possible point.’ 

He added: ‘I am now looking to the Government to rebuild the trust with this House and not treat it with the contempt that it has shown.’  

Mr Johnson did not make any reference to the stinging criticism from the Speaker as he took to his feet for PMQs afterwards.

Disquiet has been growing among MPs about the influence of Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick over the government’s approach. 

One Cabinet ‘hawk’ told MailOnline that Mr Johnson had no choice but to act given the dire warnings he was getting. ‘You can understand why the PM has to be cautious when he is being told that tens of thousands of people are going to die,’ they said.

The minister added that the government was getting advice more ‘widely’ from experts now. ‘The hawks in the Cabinet are a lot happier with the spread of opinion than they were,’ they said. 

The source pointed out that the was a huge range of opinion among scientists, and ministers had to be confident to take a view. ‘Earlier in the crisis we were a lot more in thrall of the scientists. But there is a huge difference between doubling every seven days and every 20 days,’ they said. 

‘We are talking more widely to people with different views. It might be that people like Carl Heneghan have the right assessment. ‘

‘The modelling is not at all accurate. It just gives you general idea of what might happen.’ 

The PM gathered his Cabinet this morning after embarrassingly getting muddled about the draconian rules imposed on households mixing in the North East. 

The blunder elicited a rare apology from Mr Johnson, who admitted he had ‘misspoken’ by suggesting different households could still legally socialise in groups of six indoors. 

Tory MPs insisted if Mr Johnson cannot ‘keep up’ with the changes being by the government there is no hope for ordinary members of the public.  

But Business Secretary Alok Sharma swatted away the criticism this morning, accusing journalists of ‘gotcha’ questions and turning the situation into a ‘quiz show’ – saying people should check council websites rather than listening to the PM.

‘There is an element of slightly ‘gotcha’ about this in terms of this line of questioning. You are a flagship programme when it comes to serious news and it is not a quiz show,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Asked whether he thought that calling on ministers to explain what their coronavirus regulations were was as ‘trivial as a quiz question’, he said: ‘No, absolutely not. But what I’m saying to you is that what is important is if people want to understand the precise restrictions that they have in areas which are more restricted, then they should go on to the (local authority) websites.’ 

A dire day for the government kicked off yesterday when skills minister Gillian Keegan suffered a series of car crash interviews Tuesday morning, admitting she was unable to answer key questions over new curbs that came into effect from midnight.

Quizzed on the North East lockdown after a speech at Exeter College in Devon later, Mr Johnson said: ‘On the rule of six, outside the areas such as the North East where extra measures have been brought in, it is six inside, six outside.

Coronavirus ‘could be worse for North-South divide than Thatcher’, says Manchester mayor 

Coronavirus could be worse for the north of England than Margaret Thatcher, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has said.

Mr Burnham said local restrictions to combat the spread of the virus could ‘massively increase’ England’s north-south divide and called for more support for businesses in Bolton, which has the strictest lockdown measures in the region.

The Conservative leader of Bolton Council, David Greenhalgh, also said he was pleading with the Government to recognise the disparity between boroughs as he claimed the town’s hospitality businesses had been ‘thrown to the lions’.

Speaking at a weekly coronavirus press briefing, Mr Burnham said: ‘If we go into a winter with the north under local restrictions, millions of people under restrictions, businesses suffering because of those restrictions, no support for those businesses, we are going to see a widening of the north-south divide.

‘If you look back in years to come you’ll think Covid-19 did more harm to the north of England than Margaret Thatcher and whatever she did in the 1980s.

‘This is a real danger that is staring us right in the face.

‘A government that says it wants to level up cannot put the north of England under restrictions without support. It’s pretty much as simple as that.’

‘And in the North East and other areas where extra tight measures have been brought in you should follow the guidance of the local authorities.

‘But it’s six in a home or six in hospitality, but as I understand it not six outside. That is the situation there.’ 

Whitehall sources claimed No10 had been blindsided by Matt Hancock’s decision to press ahead with the new restrictions, which had not been expected until at least the end of this week.  

Former minister Steve Baker, one of the rebel ringleaders pushing for parliament to get a bigger role in deciding lockdown, said it demonstrated the confusion that was being caused.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think it was a vivid illustration of the problems you have when a hundred Acts of Parliament are used to put in place 247, I think it is, pieces of delegated legislation … which are subject to repeated amendment and revocation.

‘When you get such a large and shifting body of law, you find even ministers and the Prime Minister cannot keep up with it.

‘What possible hope can the public have? I had one minister say to me yesterday, with terror in his eyes about the disease, we might have to change the law every 24 hours.

‘We can’t possibly expect 70 million people to keep up with law that changes every 24 hours – this would be chaos and ruin.’

Senior Tory Sir Bernard Jenkin also turned up the temperature by accusing ministers of using science for ‘propaganda’. 

‘We saw during the Iraq war, intelligence being used as a propaganda,’ he told Times Radio. 

‘The scientists are not there to explain what the government has judged necessary to do’. 

Mr Sharma defended the way restrictions were being rushed through.

‘The reason we are sometimes having to bring these in pretty quickly is to actually keep people safe – and I know all parliamentarians, Steve (Baker) and others totally get that – and the issue is the scrutiny,’ he said.

‘It is the case that when we’ve introduced restrictions, we have to make sure there is a vote within 28 days or they lapse.

‘But what colleagues are asking for is if there is some way, prior to decisions being made, whether they can be involved and I know that is something that we are looking at in Government and we will come forward with some suggestions.’

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