UK regions under pressure to submit to virus restrictions

England’s northwestern county of Lancashire, home to 1.5 million people, has agreed to accept the severe level of COVID-19 restrictions

LONDON -- England's northwestern county of Lancashire, home to 1.5 million people, has agreed to accept the most severe level of COVID-19 restrictions as the British government warned Friday that it has the authority to impose such measures on high-risk areas that continue to resist.

Geoff Driver, leader of the Lancashire County Council, said the county had struck a 42 million pound ($54.4 million) deal with the government to cushion the impact of business closures and other measures designed to slow the spread of the virus. Lancashire joins neighboring Liverpool in the government’s highest risk tier, forcing pubs and bars to close. Limits on socializing also come into effect and residents are advised to minimize travel.

No deal is in sight, though, for Greater Manchester, which is holding out for more money to implement the measures targeted at areas with the highest infection rates. Prime Minister Boris dodged the question of whether he would impose such measures unilaterally if no deal could be struck.

“I am, I have to say, concerned about what is happening in Manchester, where clearly the levels of infection are rising steeply, the levels of hospitalization are rising steeply and we do need to see action,'' he said. “I'd much rather not impose things. I'd much rather that we were able to work out something together with local authorities.''

The British government is sticking to its strategy amid mounting political and scientific pressure for stronger nationwide measures to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from spiraling out of control.

Raab reiterated the government’s belief that a regional approach where the toughest restrictions are imposed only in the areas with the highest infection rates is the best way to slow the spread of the virus and protect the economy.

The government has been under fire since Johnson unveiled his strategy on Monday amid revelations that scientific advisers had recommended a short nationwide lockdown, or “circuit break,'' to slow rapidly rising infection rates. Opposition politicians accuse ministers of doing too little, too late.

Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist who sits on the government’s scientific advisory panel, said Friday that restrictions imposed under the three-tier strategy aren’t tough enough to bring the virus under control, and that squabbling over where and when to impose the measures risks confusing the public.

Calling the situation the “worst of all worlds” Farrar said the U.K. needs to quickly implement tighter restrictions nationwide to slow the spread of the virus and limit broader damage to society.

“I think we’ve got to come together as a country,” Farrar told the BBC. “The fragmentation and, frankly, making this either a north-south or a party political issue, that’s a very, very dangerous route to go on.”

London and seven other areas will move into the second-highest risk tier on Saturday, leading to increased restrictions on more than 11 million people.

In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford said Friday the government is considering a two or three week circuit break to get the virus under control. A decision is planned for early next week.

And in Northern Ireland, a local lockdown also comes into effect, closing schools for two weeks and bars and restaurants for a month, with the exception of take away food.