U.K. Boosts Testing as Johnson Seeks Lockdown Exit Strategy

Boris Johnson said there is “no alternative” to imposing a coronavirus lockdown across England to stop the health service being overwhelmed, as he revealed plans for whole cities to be tested to root-out asymptomatic carriers of the disease.

Mass checks will be trialled in Liverpool, northwest England, from Friday with everyone in the city to be offered repeat testing -- even if they don’t have symptoms. If the program is successful, millions of the test kits will be distributed in other places in the coming weeks, the government said.

“This kind of mass testing has the potential to be a powerful new weapon in our fight against Covid-19,” Johnson said in a statement. On Monday, the prime minister told the House of Commons rapid test kits could be used in schools and elsewhere to allow the economy to keep moving before the much-anticipated roll-out of a vaccine next year.

The push for mass testing comes as a resurgence in the pandemic threatens to overwhelm the country’s health care system. Johnson responded over the weekend by ordering England into a four-week partial lockdown, with pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops to close from Thursday.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, the British prime minister rejected criticism he had been too slow to act, telling lawmakers he had done his “level best” to avoid national restrictions and that the number of deaths could be twice as high as the first wave in the spring without urgent action.

‘No Alternative’

“Faced with these latest figures, there is no alternative but to take further action at a national level,” he said. If the health service is allowed to be overwhelmed “doctors and nurses could be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would live and who would die,” he told lawmakers.

U.K. Boosts Testing as Johnson Seeks Lockdown Exit Strategy

But he faced anger from some of his own Conservative colleagues over the plan, which will be subject to a vote on Wednesday. Veteran MP Charles Walker warned the U.K. is drifting “further into an authoritarian coercive state” under the measures.

“The people of this country will never, ever forgive the political class for criminalizing parents seeing children and children seeing parents,” he told Johnson.

Tory Tensions

Ministers have been working to defuse tensions among Tory lawmakers ahead of the vote, and Johnson spoke with his party’s MPs over the weekend. The premier sought to address some of their concerns Monday, saying the measures will be strictly time-limited to Dec. 2, when Parliament will get a vote on the way forward.

The new lockdown is likely to be approved in the House of Commons after Labour and other opposition parties said they will vote for the plan. But Labour leader Keir Starmer said “the human cost will be higher” because Johnson ignored the advice of his own scientists to impose a short lockdown in September.

Senior Tory MP Graham Brady called for a “full impact assessment” of the cost of the lockdown, including the toll on people’s mental health, before the vote. Former minister Mike Penning confirmed in a telephone interview he will vote against the government.

U.K. Boosts Testing as Johnson Seeks Lockdown Exit Strategy

Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak unveiled additional financial support for businesses and workers to add to the month-long extension of the government’s flagship furlough program that was announced Saturday.

Wage Support

During November, the state will double support for self-employed workers to 80% of their usual trading profits, in line with furlough payments. The Treasury also extended the deadline for businesses to apply for state-backed loans until the end of January, and said those that have them already will be able to top them up.

Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have called for a guarantee that they would get the same access to the furlough program if their coronavirus restrictions extend beyond Dec. 2. On Monday, Johnson indicated they would.

But speaking on Sky News on Tuesday, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick appeared to row back on the commitment.

“It’s a U.K.-wide scheme which will be available to everybody in the United Kingdom until Dec. 2,” he said. “At that point, the Chancellor will quite rightly have to decide what its future is.”

The extra support came too late for many people laid-off by companies last week, ahead of the furlough program’s scheduled end. Sunak defended his decision to stick with his original time-frame, telling the BBC it was only the changing health data and subsequent lockdown that forced a rethink.

Bloomberg Economics said the second lockdown will mean the economy contracts in the fourth quarter and that the Bank of England will increase its asset purchase target this week by possibly more than the 100 billion pounds ($129 billion) previously forecast.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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