As the days grow shorter, the cold begins to bite and people all over the UK begrudgingly switch on the heating, news of local ‘tiered’ lockdowns across the country brought about feelings of dread, annoyance and mainly confusion. This week we consider Johnson’s new local lockdown measures, ongoing EU transition negotiations and rebellion in the Labour party and what this means for the months ahead.
After weeks of steadily increasing COVID-19 infection rates, the government has finally established a three tiered lockdown system in England. Tier one encompasses the fewest restrictions and tier two comes into effect if cases increase to over 100 per 100,000 people in a particular region. This is set to affect swathes of the north east, parts of the midlands, parts of the north west, Essex and London. A tier three lockdown is reserved for those areas where tier two measures have failed to reduce transmission rates.
There has been confusion across the country regarding the new restrictions and how regions with different rules interact with one another. Speaking about the new tiered system, Newcastle council leader Nick Forbes said “there is a “gap between what’s announced in headlines and the details that people can understand […] what that does is sow confusion, it creates doubt, it creates uncertainty.”
The Liverpool City Region is the only area so far to be put into a tier three lockdown, after the city recorded almost 600 cases per 100,000 in the week ending 12 October. This will see household mixing banned as well as pubs and restaurants being forced to close within the region. It is expected that Nottingham will soon be moved into a tier three lockdown, with Alison Challenger, Nottingham City Council’s director of public health, stating that there is "no doubt" the city will be pushed into the stricter lockdown measures. Tier three areas will receive a £28 million support package. This includes £14m for clinically vulnerable people and to support enforcement action and a further £14m to bolster local test and trace systems.
In response to these measures, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham said he would not accept Manchester and the surrounding areas being treated “as canaries in the coalmine for an experimental lockdown strategy”, which he said not even the government’s medical advisers thought would work. This move was backed by MPs from Greater Manchester and Lancashire from across both sides of the house. On Spectator TV last night, former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry warned the prime minister that the 80 northern Tory MPs are “the prime minister’s majority and, bluntly, he needs to look after us.” To avoid rebellions, the Treasury is now urgently weighing up the possibility of offering more support to regions facing new restrictions, with the chancellor Rishi Sunak considering providing additional support for businesses in the less restrictive tier two areas.
Who blinks first?
The ball was thwacked firmly into the UK’s court by the EU this week, as it insisted it was up to the UK to make "the necessary moves" for a deal to be reached. This statement came after the first day of the European Council summit, a two-day meeting in Brussels that was originally chosen as the UK deadline for negotiating a deal with the EU. Boris Johnson had said that if a deal had not been agreed by this time, then the UK would “move on” to focus on no-deal preparations.
There was agreement from EU leaders that a deal with the UK would not be made “at any cost”, with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, stating “If these conditions are not met, it’s possible there won’t be a deal. We are ready for that. France is ready for that. We are in the process of finalising … We are ready for a no-deal.”
Following on from this, the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost was surprised at the EU’s “suggestion that to get an agreement all future moves must come from UK”. Today, Boris Johnson called the EU’s bluff and announced that the UK must prepare to leave the transition period with no deal on 31 December, stating that the EU has "abandoned the idea of a free trade deal". He did concede, however, that he would listen if the EU came back with "a fundamental change of opinion".
Yesterday, the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said negotiations were "not finished” and the EU was ready to accelerate talks from Monday for the "two or three weeks that remain before us". However, with Johnson firmly knocking the ball back into the EU’s court, the path forwards for both the UK and EU is unclear. This will have a severe impact on businesses across Europe, with Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, stating that many firms have no capacity to contemplate failure in talks with EU.
Rebellion in the ranks
Thirty-five Labour MPs defied the whip last night to vote against a controversial piece of legislation – the covert human intelligence sources bill, dubbed by many as the 'spycops' bill, but also known as the CHIS bill or MI5 bill. The legislation is seen as controversial by many, as it makes provision for the police or intelligence officers to break the law during the course of undercover missions. There have been a number of scandals in recent years regarding these tactics, with incidents of undercover police officers deceiving partners, and in some cases, having children with those they on whom they were spying.
The Labour party had whipped its MPs to abstain on the bill, arguing that although it is far from flawless, these provisions need to be put on the statute books in order to allow undercover sources to continue their work.
Six Labour frontbenchers, Rachel Hopkins, Sarah Owen, Mary Foy, Kim Johnson, Margaret Greenwood and Navendu Mishra have since resigned from their positions. This followed on from a rebellion two weeks ago during the second reading of the bill, led by Jeremy Corbyn.
One notable resignation came from Dan Carden, the former shadow financial secretary, who had publicly stated earlier on Thursday that he would be opposing the bill. In his resignation letter, he said: "On this occasion I am resolute that as a matter of conscience I must use my voice and my vote on behalf of my constituents to object to legislation that sets dangerous new precedents on the rule of law and civil liberties in this country."
While there are certainly rumblings of discontent within some grassroots sections of the party, this shouldn’t bother the Labour leader too much, as so far he has successfully rooted out the last vestige of Corbynism from the opposition front benches.
It was already looking like the end to 2020 would be a turbulent affair. However, with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across the UK, the implementation of tiered lockdowns throughout England and Boris Johnson’s statement encouraging the UK to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, it doesn’t look like things will be calming down any time soon.