In Depth

Why everybody’s talking about the cabinet split over a circuit breaker lockdown

Boris Johnson planning for restrictions as Rishi Sunak leads calls to protect the economy

The last time Boris Johnson fell out with his chancellor, Rishi Sunak ended up replacing his political mentor Sajid Javid in 11 Downing Street.

But now Sunak is causing a headache for the prime minister, as Johnson considers imposing some form of circuit breaker lockdown in a bid to curb rising Covid infections.

The chancellor is leading a chorus of Conservative MPs voicing concerns about the economic impact of closing down the economy - further widening a growing fault line in Downing Street over the response to the pandemic.

Lockdown frenemies

Johnson is facing pressure from both Labour and some of his own MPs to introduce “a national ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown lasting two to three weeks over half term in England”, The Times reports. But the PM faces fierce opposition from his man in the Treasury, who has described the measures as “a blunt instrument”. 

Doubling down on his dovish stance on Covid restrictions, Sunak yesterday “made clear his opposition” to the lockdown proposals, after the prime minister said he would “rule nothing out” to control spiralling coronavirus cases and deaths, The Telegraph reports.

The chancellor warned the Commons that the country is facing an “economic emergency” and argued that a national lockdown would “cause needless damage to parts of our country where virus rates are low”. 

The damage “can be counted in jobs lost, businesses closed and children’s educations harmed”, and in the “increase in long-term health conditions that unemployment causes”, Sunak told MPs.

That message may have got through to his boss, who is understood to be shunning a full lockdown in favour of “plans for a region-by-region circuit-breaker in England, beginning in the last week of the month”, the paper says.

Pressure is building for Johnson to act quickly and decisively. Polling by YouGov yesterday found that 68% of Britons support the proposals for a two-week nationwide lockdown later this month, with just 20% opposed.

According to The Times, the PM “is working on plans to introduce regional circuit breakers in areas with higher Covid-19 rates as a potential compromise”. 

This compromise would be in line with Johnson’s current three-tier system, while avoiding a dispute with Sunak over nationwide restrictions.

However, a Whitehall source told Politico’s London Playbook that “there are many options on the table if the tier system doesn’t work, which might have the benefits of a national circuit-breaker without being called a circuit-breaker or having some of the downsides”.

Grim up north

With coronavirus cases and deaths continuing to rise across the country, ministers are briefing local leaders on the risk status of their areas.

London will shift to Tier 2 as of Friday, which will mean that people in the capital are banned from meeting indoors

Meanwhile, Chief Medical Office Chris Whitty  “is said to have recommended placing most of the Northwest and Northeast, as well as parts of Yorkshire and the Midlands, into Tier 3, at a meeting of the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s Local Action Committee Gold last night”, PoliticsHome reports. 

Johnson was “expected to sign off on the new measures for millions more northerners” at his ministerial committee this morning, but “faces a massive backlash from Manchester’s political leaders”, says Politico’s Alex Wickham.

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham last night tweeted that “at no point during tonight’s briefing was this news communicated to us. Media told first once again. Our position has not changed.”

As Wickham notes, unless Downing Street has a change of heart about the new tier announcement, “an almighty row - and potential legal action from the Manchester leaders against the government - will explode”.

As the row escalates, junior health minister Helen Whately will host a call with Manchester’s local leaders this evening, Sky News’ Beth Rigby reports

In an embarrassing oversight, the Tory MP for Hazel Grove, William Wragg, was not informed about the meeting, with Labour MP Afzal Khan, who represents neighbouring Manchester Gorton, tweeting that he had forwarded the Conservative an invite.

Health minister Jo Churchill was also leading a call with Lancashire MPs this morning.

But The Guardian’s north of England correspondent Josh Halliday last night tweeted that it “sounds like the decision has been made” on the region’s Covid status, and cited an unnamed local MP who complained that the area was being “shafted on a daily basis”.

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