Sir Keir Starmer has urged Boris Johnson to drop his “corrosive” Covid-19 strategy pitting regions against each other and implement a circuit-breaker lockdown from Friday.
The Labour leader said the half-term holidays offer potentially a “last opportunity” to put in place an “effective” two to three-week lockdown in England to deal with rising infection rates.
Sir Keir railed against the Government’s three-tier system of restrictions, adding the Prime Minister must “stop bargaining with people’s lives” as he criticised the failed negotiations with Greater Manchester.
But Mr Johnson rubbished the idea of a circuit-breaker lockdown and accused Sir Keir of wanting to “turn the lights out” on the country.
He warned another lockdown would bring “psychological” and “emotional” damage as schools close and businesses temporarily shut.
Mr Johnson also confirmed £60 million offered to Greater Manchester to support businesses affected by new coronavirus restrictions will be distributed to the region’s boroughs.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir said: “This is a Prime Minister who can pay £7,000 a day for consultants on track and trace, which isn’t working, can find £43 million for a garden bridge that was never built but he can’t find £5 million for the people of Greater Manchester.
“I really think the Prime Minister has crossed a Rubicon here, not just with the miserly way that he’s treated Greater Manchester, but the grubby ‘take it or leave it’ way these local deals are being done.
“It’s corrosive to public trust to pit region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council, asking them to trade away their businesses and jobs.”
Mr Johnson said he is “proud” of the Government’s support to the entire country, adding: “I think it’s the height of absurdity that he stands up and attacks the economic consequences of the measures we’re obliged to take across some parts of the country when he wants to turn the lights out with a full national lockdown.
“That was his policy last week, wasn’t it? Perhaps he could confirm that’s still his policy.”
But Sir Keir said Government heat maps show the infection rate is “up in all ages across all regions”, adding: “Cornwall is the only place, possibly with the Isle of Wight, where the infection rate today is less than Greater Manchester when it went into local restrictions – so this idea that somehow it’s immune is wrong.
“So there’s a stark choice: carry on with the Prime Minister’s approach, which will lead to weeks and weeks and months and months of prolonged agony in all your constituencies for millions of people in Tier 2 and Tier 3, with no exit, or put in place a two to three-week time-limited circuit break to break the cycle and bring the virus back under control.”
He added in the Commons: “With half-term starting this Friday, this may be the last opportunity for the Prime Minister to put in place an effective circuit break.
“The Prime Minister was too slow in the first phase of this pandemic, he’s being too slow again, we cannot repeat this mistake.
“Will he act in the public interest and take the opportunity to put in place a circuit break this Friday?”
Mr Johnson said the Government will “do whatever it takes” to get the country through the crisis, and rejected the circuit break idea, adding: “It’d involve closing schools, it’d involve shuttering businesses with all the psychological, emotional damage that lockdown of that kind brings.”
The Prime Minister went on: “We want to go on with our commonsensical approach, which is a local, regional approach.”
Mr Johnson earlier said the simplest way for an area under Tier 3 restrictions to be reduced to a lower tier is “to get the ‘R’ down to one or below” – as Sir Keir repeatedly pressed for an exit strategy.
Mr Johnson told MPs: “I made it absolutely clear that part of the country going into Tier 3 is only in there for 28 days, we will review it after 28 days and areas that have gone into Tier 3, I believe, are already making progress.
“Areas where there are restrictions in place are also showing signs of progress. We are pursuing a local, a regional approach, which is the sensible approach for this country.”