Leading London Tories are split over whether varying lockdown rules should be imposed on different areas of the capital depending on local infection rates.
The mayor, Sadiq Khan, claimed there is consensus for tier 2 restrictions being introduced across London next week when the current lockdown is eased.
“London’s leaders have worked very closely together on a cross-party basis and are united on this: our city going into tier 2 next week would seem the right and sensible decision,” he tweeted.
But this apparent agreement threatens to unravel after lobbying by Tory MPs to allow areas with lower infection rates to have less stringent restrictions. The latest public figures show infection rates per 100,000 in the capital’s 32 boroughs vary from 113 in Camden to 387 in Havering.
The Tory MP for Kensington, Felicity Buchan, lobbied for lower restrictions for her area in a virtual meeting with health minister Nadine Dorries on Tuesday. A WhatsApp summary of the meeting said: “Felicity is trying to recruit Nadine into her view that there should be different tiers in different parts of London. Felicity failed.”
Harrow East MP Bob Blackman called for a “borough by borough” system. “My concern is that the borough with the lowest infection rate will be lumped in with the one that has the highest,” he told the Telegraph.
Tory MPs Gareth Bacon and Bob Neil, whose neighbouring constituencies cover Bromley, are also backing “borough variations”. Its infection rate is 171.
Last month in a letter to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, that was endorsed by Neil, Bacon said: “I am specifically querying whether any evidence exists as to whether the capital should be treated as a single entity under lockdown restrictions.” At the time he called for Orpington to be placed in tier 1.
But Andrew Boff, the Conservative deputy chairman of the London assembly’s health committee, is resisting differential tiers in London.
He told the Guardian: “The more complex it gets the more likely it is that it will be a complete failure. People have already found it hard understanding the different tier system, can you imagine that multiplied by 32?”
He added: “There are different infection rates in London, but most of them are still going up. We cannot run the risk of hospitals being totally swamped by Covid cases and people losing their lives for the lack of medical attention, and that’s what would happen.”
Boff favours tier 2 for all of London but would accept tier 3 if there was evidence it was needed. He also criticised comments by Shaun Bailey, the Tory candidate for mayor of London, that tier 3 would be disastrous for London.
He said: “The disaster for London is the pandemic, not the measures we have been using to suppress it. It is no good telling the government it’s a disaster. We need to fight it. For all those who say we shouldn’t bother and adopt that stupid model that Sweden adopted in the early days, they need to think if it would be acceptable for hospitals to be full.”
Labour’s Onkar Sahota, a GP who chairs the London assembly’s health committee, agreed. He said: “To separate London into its 32 boroughs would be chaotic. Our police, ambulance and transport system are all integrated. It would be very difficult to police and people would be very confused. And there is not a huge variation in the infections in London. The worst is 387 per 100,000 and the average for London is about 197.”
Dr Sahota predicted that London would be placed in tier 2. He said: “If you look at other areas of the country, 400 cases per 100,000 has been the trigger for tier 3, and there is only one London borough that even gets close to that.”
Rupa Huq, the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, said: “While London is below the England average for infections it shouldn’t be punished by pushing it up to tier 3. And whatever the messaging is it is easier if it is consistent. The government should ignore Tory MPs calling for differential tiers.
She added: “The 10pm curfew has got to go, because that was massively counterproductive when there was the same chucking out time for everyone.”
Boff agreed: “Closing pubs at 10pm and now 11pm is absolutely ridiculous. They have just put it back an hour. They don’t understand how people act, if you give people more time it spreads out the chance of them overwhelming the transport network. It is safer if you give people more options over time they leave those venues.”
The second wave is proving much less virulent in London than in the spring, when the pandemic hit the capital first and hardest.
Infections city-wide rose steadily from just 16 per 100,000 on 1 September to 157 on 26 October, but then began to tail off. But they increased again from 3 November, which public health officials put down to inter-household mixing during a school half-term week and people enjoying “a last hurrah” before the second lockdown began on 5 November.
They hit a peak of 199.4 on 14 November – the highest figure recorded during the second wave – but fell every day after that to 187.4 on 19 November, last Thursday.
One public health official said: “The figures have fallen, but only for a few days. We’re in this limbo at the minute because ideally we’d want to see several more days data before the decision about which tier London is put into is made. It’s going down to the wire.”
The latest Public Health England data shows that London is the region of England where the lowest proportion of NHS staff and hospital inpatients who are tested for coronavirus have a positive result – just 3%. However, far more people who are tested in the community, for example at drive-through centres, turn out to be positive – 12.5%.
Unlike many hospitals in England’s north and Midlands, those in London are seeing fewer cases than in the first wave. On Monday 1,675 hospital beds in the capital were occupied by people with Covid, 977 (140%) more than a month earlier. The number of patients on mechanical ventilation has also risen sharply over the last month, from 99 on 23 October to 252 on Monday – up 155%.