Even in a political year of hugely difficult decisions, the one looming next week looks particularly tricky – and risks dividing the government: whether London should move into the top tier of coronavirus restrictions.
Boris Johnson told the public “your tier is not your destiny” as England emerged from a four-week November lockdown, holding out the hope that restrictions could be loosened when they are reviewed on 16 December.
Instead, he may be left with little choice but to tighten the rules on 9 million people in the capital – a decision he fiercely resisted last month, with the backing of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the business secretary, Alok Sharma, fearing that up to 500,000 jobs could be lost.
With some boroughs recording more than twice the average case rate for England, public health experts believe the virus has taken hold again in the city hit hard in the pandemic’s first wave – and the decision is clear. To areas in northern England that have endured months of tier-3-level restrictions, it will seem deeply unfair if the capital avoids the same measures.
Some scientists on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) say privately that London should in fact have gone immediately into tier 3 at the start of December, when the post-lockdown regime for England was introduced.
Lined up against this are those who warn of the dire consequences of effectively closing down much of London’s hospitality industry days before traditionally the busiest period, with people learning of losing their jobs days from Christmas.
The decision is due to be made at a meeting of the government’s Covid-O committee on Wednesday, to be chaired by Johnson, unless he is knee-deep in Brexit negotiations.
For London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, and its devolved administration, this gives a matter of days to show ministers that the infection trajectory has shifted, and that the decision could at least be put off until January.
It appears that no decision has yet been reached. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, are seen to be pushing for the move into tier 3, while the Treasury is worried about the economic impact.
“There’s definitely some people who think we should be in tier 3, and other people who are really worried, not just about the financial repercussions, but whether hospitality is even causing the transmission,” one source in the London administration said.
Crucially, for a city economy particularly reliant on pubs, bars, restaurants and other hospitality venues, while these can open in tier 2 if people eat food with alcohol, a move to the top tier means they must go takeaway-only.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the trade body UKHospitality, said: “Hospitality has continued to take on a disproportionate burden to allow other parts of the economy to reopen during this crisis. The prospect of London moving into tier 3 would deliver a killer blow that many hospitality businesses simply wouldn’t recover from.”
She added: “The increase in infections that are being reported in London boroughs are also not a result of the recent reopening of the hospitality sector, as we know due to the incubation period of the disease. Consequently, any harsher restrictions placed on the capital’s hospitality sector would have questionable effect on reducing transmission whilst plunging the sector into an even deeper crisis.”
An ally of Hancock played down the idea of a split between lockdown doves and hawks, insisting that, as a former adviser to George Osborne, he understood the economic risks of draconian restrictions. But they added: “Matt absolutely comes to this, as you would expect him to, as the health secretary: his job is to look at the public health argument, and put that forward.”
What is clear is that while infection rates vary significantly between London boroughs, in some areas the apparent threshold for moving into tier 3 has already been passed.
A series of boroughs have seven-day rolling infection rates of close to or beyond twice the England average of 153 cases per 100,000 people, including Havering – on 379 – as well as Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge and Waltham Forest.
Prof Steven Riley of Imperial College London, who is part of the Spi-M subgroup of Sage, said of the “worrying” infection data: “I think it suggests that transmission has increased in London. It went from going down fairly consistently to now having a fairly consistent signal of going up.”
On Friday, Public Health England made a public appeal for Londoners to “take urgent action to protect loved ones over the festive period”, with the local head of public health, Kevin Fenton, using a tweeted video to urge people to keep to rules.
Khan’s team is hoping that infection rates could start to plateau, and are ready to argue that factors other than hospitality are the main drivers.
Most high-case boroughs are in outer London, often areas with significant poverty. After Khan and other London leaders met the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, on Thursday, the mayor’s office called for more help so people could better afford to self-isolate.
The city has already received extra support for Covid testing in secondary schools. On Friday, the government announced 75,000 extra tests for seven badly-hit London boroughs, and from this weekend will start sending out 44,000 home test kits for school staff before they return to work in January.
Some London Tory MPs have privately said they would try to fight a move to tier 3, but with the decision not requiring a vote in parliament, it is not clear what they could do.
Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North, said he accepted the decision had to be guided by the evidence. He said: “The challenge we have in London is twofold: how you get across a message about being safe and responsible and potentially having harsher restrictions, at the same time as telling people effectively there’s a break over Christmas.
“And also, while we are enormously relieved that a vaccine is being rolled out, getting the message across that this is not a time to be complacent, and that the virus is still taking hold and sadly killing people.”
Downing Street sources stressed the fact that the decision would be based not just on case rates, which are rising rapidly in the capital, but on other factors including local NHS capacity.