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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

Manchester becomes latest European city to fall into lockdown

Dispute over economic support plan as health crisis sweeps northern England's largest city

The 3-million strong population of Manchester was due on Tuesday to suffer the imposition of tight restrictions on movement against the will of its elected leaders as European countries rush to introduce new restrictions to curb a surge in cases.

Ireland moves into second national lockdown from Thursday with non-essential stores, bars and restaurants forced to close for at least six weeks. Travel will be restricted further, with people told to stay within 5 kilometres of their homes.

In Manchester, a deadline of midday on Tuesday was missed to negotiate a deal that would see the Covid-19-hit region given financial aid to help those who would lose their jobs if Manchester moved into a Tier 3 lockdown. Tier 3 indicates there is a "very high risk" of infections. The ultimatum had been described by Manchester's mayor as "provocative".

Local government minister Robert Jenrick said he had advised Prime Minister Boris Johnson that no deal had been reached.

"I’m disappointed that despite recognising the gravity of the situation, the mayor has been unwilling to take the action that is required to get the spread of the virus under control in Greater Manchester and reach an agreement with the government," Mr Jenrick said.

Opposition leader Keir Starmer said the collapse of talks was due to government failure.

In Italy, its most populated region of Lombardy was given permission to impose a three-week night-time curfew. Lombardy, the region at the heart of Europe's first outbreak and hit hardest by the pandemic that has already claimed more than 36,000 lives in Italy, is struggling to contain another surge in cases.

Spain is also considering a curfew of its own, including in the capital Madrid, and is set to become the first European country to pass one million cases on Wednesday.

Portugal has backed down from making mandatory a tracing app after a public outcry forced it to back down from the plan, which was widely criticised as unworkable and unconstitutional.

Greater Manchester had so far resisted pressure to introduce the highest level of pandemic restrictions.

The region’s mayor Andy Burnham warned that going into a Tier 3 lockdown could potentially last for months, causing a mental health crisis and economic devastation.

Mr Burnham had the support of local MPs from Mr Johnson’s own party who also want to avoid the strictest curbs.

Negotiations over the past 10 days had failed to reach a deal and local government minister Robert Jenrick warned late on Monday that a deal must be agreed by midday.

“I have written to local leaders this evening to make clear that if we cannot reach agreement by midday tomorrow, then I must advise the prime minister that despite our best endeavours we’ve been unable to reach agreement,” he said.

“It’s not too late for local leaders to work with us to take action for the sake of the people of Greater Manchester.”

The head of Manchester City Council said an alternative idea to prevent a move to Tier 3 would be a Swedish-style approach.

It would shield the most vulnerable members of the community, which would cost the government £14 million ($18.1m) a month but be cheaper than shutting businesses.

"Most people who test positive for the virus are not getting particularly ill. They are not the problem," Richard Leese told the BBC.

"If this is the evidence, wouldn't it be much better to have an effective shielding programme for those most at risk, rather than have a blanket business closure policy of dubious efficacy?"

Projections by government scientists suggest that without action, intensive care capacity in Greater Manchester hospitals would be overwhelmed by November 12.

But in a joint statement, Mr Burnham and Mr Leese said the figures were selective.

“Greater Manchester’s ICU occupancy rate is not abnormal for this time of year and is comparable to the occupancy rate in October last year. Also, providing information about individual hospitals does not reflect that our hospitals work as a system to manage demand.

“We are not complacent about the position in our hospitals and are monitoring the situation closely. But in the current situation, we believe it is essential that our residents are given clear, accurate information about the state of the NHS in Greater Manchester and that public fears are not raised unnecessarily," they said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said coronavirus cases in the over-60 age group had tripled in the past 15 days.

Manchester’s current rate is 432.5 cases per 100,000 people.

Greater Manchester had only 46 critical care beds left last Friday – 18 per cent of its total supply – and some of its 12 hospitals were already full, National Health Service figures obtained by The Guardian showed.

The highest level of restrictions would force pubs to close and ban people from mixing indoors with others from different households.

Wales has gone further and ordered a two-week “firebreak” lockdown beginning on Friday to reduce the pressure on its health service.

“The window we have within which we have to act is only a small one," said First Minister Mark Drakeford. "And to be successful, we need everybody’s help."

“Here in Wales, this is the moment to come together – to play our part in a common endeavour. To do everything we can, together, to protect the NHS and to save lives," Mr Drakeford added.

Updated: October 20, 2020 07:52 PM

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