Confusion has been cast over lockdown talks between Downing Street and Greater Manchester after mayor Andy Burnham denied No 10’s suggestion talks had been arranged to attempt to end the row.
Downing Street said a call between the two sides had been scheduled for Sunday morning, as both sides come under pressure to come to an agreement over Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions.
But the office for Mr Burnham, who is resisting the highest level of controls without more financial support for workers and businesses, flatly denied a call had been scheduled.
Boris Johnson was also under renewed pressure on Saturday to impose a short national lockdown known as a circuit-breaker to slow Covid-19’s resurgence.
The calls came as new controls including in Lancashire and London mean 28 million people, more than half of England, are living under heightened restrictions.
Labour joined the Prime Minister, who has warned he could impose restrictions without local agreement, in warning that the situation in Greater Manchester is “grave”.
Mr Burnham said no meetings had taken place since Thursday morning and urged in a joint statement with council leaders that “we are ready to meet at any time”.
Downing Street on Saturday indicated a call had been scheduled for the following morning after a message was left with Mr Burnham.
But a spokesman for the mayor said: “Nothing has yet been arranged.”
A Downing Street source responded: “No 10 reached out this morning to try and arrange a meeting with the Mayor of Manchester.
“We will continue to try and reach an agreement on these difficult, yet necessary, measures to protect the NHS and the people of Manchester.”
Shadow education secretary Kate Green earlier called for an end to the “blame game” and for discussions to resume to get the region an adequate support package.
The Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “That has not been offered by the Government.
“There hasn’t even been discussions over the past 24 hours between the Government and Greater Manchester’s leaders.
“We have to have our local leaders around the table with the Prime Minister or with his representatives to thrash out a deal today.”
Around 1.5 million more people woke up to Tier 3 restrictions when Lancashire joined the Liverpool region living under the severest controls, with pubs and bars closed unless they can serve meals and indoor mixing banned.
Jake Berry, the Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen, called for evidence to show the measures work, echoing concerns raised in Manchester.
“I think that spoonful of scepticism is because we’ve been in very similar measures since August and no one has really demonstrated to us the way out or how these measures are working,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt called for an end to the “public war of words” between local and national leaders, though he said there are “some justifications” for Mr Burnham’s arguments.
But the senior Conservative MP also indicated his support for the circuit-breaker lockdown suggested by Labour and the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
He said he had “sympathy” for Government adviser Sir John Bell’s view that the national measure might be needed, potentially even including a two-week closure of schools in England.
Sir John, the regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I can see very little way of getting on top of this without some kind of a circuit-breaker because the numbers are actually pretty eye-watering in some bits of the country and I think it’s going to be very hard to get on top of this just biting around the edges.
“If in the end we have to take kids out for two weeks, calm it all down, and then start ideally embedded in a much more rigorous testing regime then that’s maybe what we may have to do.”
The Prime Minister has been resisting calls to implement the measure over the October half term as he favours local measures, but said on Friday that he “can’t rule anything out”.
He also tried to increase pressure on Mr Burnham during a Downing Street press conference, and threatened to impose the measures if local leaders did not accept them.
“I cannot stress enough: time is of the essence. Each day that passes before action is taken means more people will go to hospital, more people will end up in intensive care and tragically more people will die,” Mr Johnson said.
But the mayor and council leaders across Greater Manchester, including a Conservative, responded by insisting they have done “everything within our power to protect the health of our residents”, and said people and firms need greater financial support before they accept the lockdown.
Tier 2 measures in London, Essex, York, Elmbridge, Barrow-in-Furness, North East Derbyshire, Erewash and Chesterfield mean people can no longer mix inside with those from other households, including in pubs and restaurants.
Wales also banned people in Tier 2 or 3 areas in England, as well as the central belt of Scotland and the whole of Northern Ireland, from entering as of 6pm on Friday.
And pubs, restaurants and cafes across Northern Ireland had to close their doors to sit-in customers.
In other developments:
– There were a further 16,171 lab-confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK and an extra 150 deaths of people who had tested positive in the past 28 days, according to Government figures, which put the total at 43,579.
– Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson said his brother has died after being admitted to intensive care with Covid-19.
– Sir John Bell said it is “possible” to get to one million coronavirus tests a day by Christmas, but said there would be significant logistical challenges.
– Mr Johnson said the UK is developing the capacity to manufacture millions of fast-turnaround tests for coronavirus which could deliver results in just 15 minutes.
– The Welsh Government was to meet to discuss a circuit-breaker lockdown and will announce any decisions on Monday.
– Some 15,650 lab-confirmed coronavirus cases were recorded in the UK on Friday, alongside 136 deaths.