By JILL LAWLESS, The Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — The British government is set to announce new restrictions Monday on business and socializing in major northern England cities with high infection rates. But pubs, restaurants and other businesses are pushing back, arguing that they are not to blame for a resurgent outbreak.
Local authorities in hard-hit cities including Liverpool and Manchester are seeking financial support for businesses that are ordered to close, and details of an exit strategy from local lockdowns.
After falling in the summer, coronavirus cases are on the rise in the U.K. as winter approaches. Under the new measures, areas of England will be placed in “tiers,” classing them as at medium, high or very high risk, and placed under restrictions of varying severity.
Liverpool mayor Steve Rotheram said his city was to be placed in the highest category.
“We were told we were going into Tier 3 — no ifs, no buts,” he said.
Rotheram, mayor of the greater Liverpool region in northwest England, said local officials have not yet agreed with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government what the exact restrictions will be.
Businesses including gyms and pubs are expected to be shut, but restaurants are lobbying to be allowed to remain open. Rotheram said cities also wanted to know what the exit strategy would be from the measures, which are set to be reviewed after a month.
He said local authorities want “some surety from national government that if we hit some of the milestones we can come out of Tier 3 very quickly.”
Liverpool has one of the country’s highest levels of infection, with more than 600 cases per 100,000 people.
Bar and restaurant owners have questioned whether they are major sources of transmission, and say the government has not shared the evidence to back up the claim.
Manchester City Council leader Richard Leese said data from the city’s public health officials “seems to demonstrate that there is not a particular connection between bars and restaurants and the transmission of COVID.”
But Calum Semple, professor of outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said “most of the outbreaks are happening within and between households and then after that, it’s in the retail and hospitality sector.”
“Alcohol and people’s behaviour are well known to be factors that result in relaxation of one’s adherence to regulations, let’s put it politely,” Semple told the BBC. “And so I can understand why this move is happening.”
The government has announced a support package to pay two-thirds of the salaries of employees of companies that are told to close, but many in the pub and restaurant sector say that is not enough to save already struggling businesses.
England is already under national restrictions including a 10 p.m. curfew on pubs and restaurants and a ban on more than six people gathering. Some areas have tougher measures, such as a ban on households mixing. The rest of the U.K. is under similar, and sometimes tougher, restrictions. In Scotland’s two biggest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, pubs have been closed for 16 days to suppress the outbreak.
Without even more action, there are fears that U.K. hospitals will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks at a time of year when they are already at their busiest with flu and other winter illnesses. The U.K. has experienced Europe’s deadliest outbreak, with an official death toll of 42,825.