Boris Johnson has come under stinging attack from a Tory council leader over the “sheer unfairness” of regional coronavirus restrictions, as the prime minister faced ridicule for muddling new lockdown rules.
David Greenhalgh, the council leader in Bolton, one of the UK’s worst-hit areas, said government handling of the measures was “breeding resentment” among “red wall” voters who switched to the Conservatives in December’s general election.
“It’s become too complex, too complicated. The amount of resentment that’s built up now because of the unfairness. People feel very let down, they feel frustrated, there’s a lot of anger,” he told the Guardian.
“At the moment we just feel very forgotten and, I’ll be honest, the fact that I’m a Conservative leader and I’m appealing to my own government – it’s not a great position to be in.”
The criticism came as Johnson apologised and said he “misspoke” after wrongly suggesting the England-wide “rule of six” limiting public gatherings did not apply outdoors in the north-east, where strict new rules are being imposed.
The Newcastle city council leader, Nick Forbes, said the confusion showed “they are making it up as they go along”, adding: “You can’t just bluster your way through situations like this – making it up as you go has massive consequences, confuses people and undermines the very public health goals both local and central government are trying to achieve.”
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, branded Johnson “grossly incompetent” and said the government “needs to get a grip”.
On Tuesday, reported daily deaths from coronavirus rose to 71, while cases exceeded 7,100 – the highest ever daily total. On Wednesday, the prime minister is expected to address the rate of increase when he gives a press conference alongside his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty.
The scientists have come under fire from restive Tory backbenchers over the stark warning they gave last week, that coronavirus cases could hit 50,000 a day by mid-October without fresh intervention. Asked about the projection, Johnson’s spokesman said: “It was not a prediction; it was an illustration of how quickly the virus can move if cases double every seven days.”
Johnson’s slip-up on local lockdown rules underlined the complexities of the government approach. Whitehall officials are working on a more streamlined “traffic light” system that would group areas into three categories according to the prevalence of the virus, with restrictions varying accordingly.
This could be tied into the NHS Covid-19 app, which already tells users whether they are in a high-, medium- or low-risk area. Government sources insisted they would also continue to include local leaders in decision-making.
The intervention from Greenhalgh – the only Conservative council leader in Greater Manchester – came after bars, pubs and restaurants in Bolton were restricted to providing takeaway three weeks ago after the town’s infection rate rose to 118 cases per 100,000 people, the highest in England. Since then, 24 other local authorities have recorded higher infection rates yet their hospitality industries have been allowed to remain open.
Greenhalgh said the situation was “absolutely, completely unfair and unacceptable” and that he had pleaded privately with government officials to relax the measures but received only “warm words” in response.
He said the hospitality ban was “not working” as people were simply walking “half a mile down the road” to pubs outside Bolton that were allowed to open. The town’s infection rate has also continued to rise, now standing at 240 cases per 100,000 people – nearly five times England’s average and double the rate when its restrictions were imposed.
Greenhalgh said the town’s hospitality industry was “being thrown to the lions” and had already made redundancies. A Treasury support package of up to £1,500 every three weeks would not prevent the “irrevocable damage” to the local economy, he said.
“It’s almost like they make a decision and no matter what happens they stand by it and they won’t reduce those restrictions. But you can’t leave us in this position and let our businesses suffer for much longer. If we have been a test case and it’s not worked, have the guts to admit it. If it’s worked, then why’s it not being imposed on other boroughs?” he said.
On Tuesday an NHS boss was replaced as the testing director of the beleaguered test-and-trace programme by a former chief executive of Sainsbury’s. Mike Coupe is succeeding Sarah-Jane Marsh, who is returning to her usual role as chief executive of Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS trust.
The change increases the number of senior figures in NHS test and trace with a commercial background – it is headed by Dido Harding, the former TalkTalk chief executive – and reduces those whose background is in the NHS, public health or local government.
On Thursday, new coronavirus restrictions are being introduced in four local authority areas in north Wales. The measures will come into force at 6pm on 1 October in Denbighshire, Flintshire, Conwy and Wrexham.