Rishi Sunak issues dire jobs warning as he ‘hopes’ England’s lockdown will only last four weeks

Boris Johnson to tell MPs winter Covid-19 deaths could be twice as high as in first wave

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak attends a news conference amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Downing Street in London, Britain, October 22, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/Pool
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Rishi Sunak has issued a warning that unemployment will shoot up because of another lockdown.

The UK finance minister also said he hoped the shutdown, in place across England, would last only four weeks.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Sunak said: "Close to three quarters of a million people have already tragically lost their jobs and sadly many more will. That is going to happen as a result of the restrictions we are putting in place."

Mr Sunak earlier said it was his “expectation and firm hope” that the lockdown would end in a month’s time.

But he issued a warning that England would return to its tier system, under which Covid restrictions are classified as medium, high or very high depending on the severity of local outbreaks.

“Our expectation and firm hope is on the basis of everything we know today the measures we put in place ... will be sufficient for the job we need,” he said.

“We will seek to exit these restrictions back into a tiered approach at the end of the four-week period.”

Mr Sunak confirmed cash support for self-employed workers “will go up” in addition to the extension of the furlough scheme.

Despite his dire forecast on jobs, he said positive news about Oxford’s vaccine trial and mass testing gave “reasons for optimism”.

Former prime minister Tony Blair urged the government to accelerate deployment of vaccines and therapeutics drugs as well as speeding up the delivery of rapid testing.

He said: "Britain ironically is better placed – in theory – for a second wave. We have probably the best vaccine in the world; probably the best therapeutic drug; and at least some of the best testing devices.

"But we need to get organised. And we need these key decisions to be taken now."

Asked what improvements would be made to track and trace over lockdown, Mr Sunak said the government had already introduced “significant” financial incentives to encourage people to stay at home.

He added that the government decided to impose a second lockdown because “the virus has moved at a faster pace than we anticipated”.

Countries across Europe are also tightening restrictions to slow the outbreak, with Belgium set to enter lockdown overnight and Germany’s four-week shutdown starting today.

Sage scientist Professor Andrew Hayward told Sky News thousands of lives in the UK could have been saved if a short lockdown had been enforced in September.

He added that the move would have “inflicted substantially less damage” to the economy.

Defending his decision to impose another lockdown, Boris Johnson will later tell MPs Covid deaths could be twice as high in the winter as they were in the first wave of the pandemic.

The prime minister will say he had no alternative because the infection rate remains high despite his preference for a regional strategy, according to reports.

He will tell the House of Commons he was “right to try every possible option” before bringing in another lockdown, which he has previously described as “the nuclear option”.

He will say: “Models of our scientists suggest that unless we act now, we could see deaths over the winter that are twice as bad or more compared with the first wave.

“Faced with these latest figures, there is no alternative but to take further action at a national level.”

Mr Johnson is also expected to stress that he will “seek to” end the harsh new measures in a month’s time – but won’t rule out an extension.

Travellers wearing masks because of the coronavirus pandemic ride an escalator in a train station in London on November 1, 2020 as England prepares to enter into a second lockdown in an effort to stem soaring infections.  A new four-week coronavirus lockdown in England will be extended if it fails to reduce infection rates, the government said Sunday, as it faced criticism over the abrupt decision to shut down again. The second national lockdown, hastily announced late Saturday following warnings hospitals could become overwhelmed within weeks, is set to come into force from Thursday and end on December 2.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove admitted on Sunday that the lockdown could last longer than 28 days if it fails to contain the spread of the virus.

The possibility of an extension is likely to further enrage those Conservative MPs who were already furious at news of the latest lockdown.

Up to 80 Tory MPs are said to be considering rebelling against the government when it comes to a vote on Wednesday, The Telegraph reported.

Among the rebel MPs is former minister Esther McVey, who said she is voting against the shutdown because it will “cause more harm than Covid”.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the party’s powerful 1922 Committee representing backbenchers, was also among the rogue MPs after describing draconian coronavirus restrictions as a “form of evil”.

He told the BBC: "If these kinds of measures were being taken in any totalitarian country around the world, we would be denouncing it as a form of evil - and here the removal of people's fundamental liberties is going almost without comment.”

Mr Johnson will attempt to fend off the looming rebellion by meeting with backbenchers over the coming days but reservations also exist at the highest levels of government.

Mr Sunak reportedly told an emergency Cabinet meeting on Saturday that current levels of funding for public services were under threat if lockdowns persisted.

Some ministers were concerned retailers could go broke in the run-up to Christmas.

There were also concerns about mental health and heightened levels of domestic abuse during lockdown.

Labour has said will back the lockdown but some in the party are pushing the government to go further.

Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester who railed against the tiered system, told Sky News another lockdown would “help everybody to have a real reset moment”.

He called for schools and universities to close “to get the full benefit of a national lockdown”.

Under the new rules, people must stay at home except in cases where exemptions apply, such as for work, education or exercise.

In contrast to the months-long UK-wide lockdown earlier this year, schools, colleges and universities will remain open.

Pubs and restaurants will shut unless serving takeaway food, while all leisure and entertainment venues and non-essential shops will close.

The ramped-up response came as Britain surpassed one million cases, after announcing nearly 23,254 new infections on Sunday.

The government's scientific advisers have warned that Covid-19's prevalence, and resulting hospitalisations and deaths, are rising faster than their most dire predictions.

They cautioned that under the current trajectory, intensive care units and ventilator capacity could be overwhelmed by early December while winter deaths could be double the current toll.