LONDON — Under fire from critics over the economic and social cost of his coronavirus restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will bring a grueling, second national lockdown in England to an end next week.
But under a new set of rules announced Thursday, which divide England into three tiers of restrictions, the access to bars and restaurants will differ drastically from place to place depending on the government’s assessment of the local threat posed by the virus.
That means the more than 23 million people who live in the most restricted tier still face a ban on one of the nation’s favored activities: a visit to the pub. This ban will not only disappoint patrons but also deprive the beleaguered hospitality sector of critical revenue in the run-up to Christmas, when pubs and restaurants are usually overflowing.
With the holiday season arriving, Johnson has a difficult balance to strike in trying to tweak the exit from the lockdown in a way that is neither so stringent that many fail to comply, nor so lax that it allows the virus to get out of control.
Opinion polls generally show that Britons support tough measures and prefer to prioritize health over the economy. And the risk to health remains real.
While the daily number of COVID-19 cases is falling and is now at around 17,500, almost 500 deaths were announced in the latest 24-hour period for which data is available.
But the political backlash against the new pub rules was swift, as Graham Brady, who chairs the influential 1922 committee of Conservative backbench lawmakers, told the BBC that he would vote against the three-tier plan when it goes to Parliament for approval next week. Previous government restrictions have been approved despite a rebellion of some Tory lawmakers.
“I have severe reservations on so many different levels,” Brady said. “I do think that the policies have been far too authoritarian. I think they have interfered in people’s private and personal lives in a way which is unacceptable.”
In Thursday’s closely watched announcement of post-lockdown rules, the government said it plans to allow areas in two of the three tiers, including London and Liverpool, to permit bars to serve alcohol to customers who order food. Even this relaxation, however, will restrict the ability of many pubs to operate profitably, their owners say.
But throughout huge swaths of the country, including most of its other big cities like Manchester and Birmingham, the government wants tougher restrictions to be in place, with pub and restaurant doors kept firmly shuttered when the national lockdown ends Dec. 2.
In these highest-risk areas, only takeout service will be permitted.
“With 99% of the country in tiers two or three, this remains lockdown in all but name for nearly all pubs during the most important trading month of the year,” said Nick Mackenzie, chief executive of the pub chain Greene King.
“This puts hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk and places the future of British pubs in even greater doubt for the years ahead,” he said, adding that of the more than 2,300 pubs in his chain in England, just six will be in areas where they can operate relatively normally — in the so-called first tier.
Fewer than 1 million people in the south of England will live in areas under the lightest curbs where bars and restaurants can operate relatively normally, whereas more than 55 million live in the other two tiers.
But beyond the world of pubs and restaurants, the end of lockdown will make a difference because, even in the worst-hit parts of England, stores, gyms and hairdressers are being allowed to reopen and religious services, weddings and outdoor sports to restart. Retailers will have a chance to open up during the lucrative Christmas shopping season.
This week, Johnson also announced plans to relax rules on social mixing to allow up to three households to gather together from Dec. 22-27 to celebrate Christmas, but health experts warn this will likely cause a spike in infections.
But large parts of the country that went into the national lockdown this month with light restrictions will be moved into tiers with tougher restrictions after Dec. 2, raising questions as to whether the government’s lockdowns have worked.
Damian Green, a Conservative Party lawmaker, wrote on Twitter that he was “hugely disappointed” that the whole of Kent, a region some of which he represents, was placed in tier three.
“Before lockdown we were in tier one, so what has lockdown achieved?” he asked.
At a news conference, Johnson argued that tough restrictions were vital to control the spread of infections. “If we ease off now, we risk losing control of this virus all over again, casting aside our hard-won gains and forcing us back into a New Year national lockdown,” he said.
He added that if the government was to keep schools open, as it wants, its options for reducing social contact were limited.
Some critics think the tiers fail to take sufficient account of local variations within regions, while others worry that some of the poorest areas will be hit hardest.
On Thursday, Downing Street denied that London and the surrounding southeast had been saved from the toughest restrictions because of its economic importance.
But the announcement threatens to stoke accusations that the north of the country is suffering from restrictions more than the south — a damaging claim for a government that was elected with the support of many northern voters who had traditionally sided with the opposition Labour Party.
Other critics had more fundamental objections. Steve Baker, an influential backbench Conservative lawmaker, was blunt in his criticism, saying, “The authoritarianism at work today is truly appalling.”
As for the hospitality sector, it believes that many pubs might not now survive the winter.
A letter signed by 50 pub and brewing businesses and sent to Johnson argued that they were being “singled out for exceptionally harsh and unjustified treatment.”
Unless the government changed course, “huge portions of this most British of institutions will simply not be there come the spring,” it said.