By Elizabeth Piper and William James
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer called on Tuesday for a two to three week "circuit breaker" lockdown, stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is struggling to sell his own plan to tackle COVID-19.
Dropping what his party has described as its "constructive opposition" towards government attempts to flatten a growing number of new coronavirus cases, Starmer said "there's no longer time to give this prime minister the benefit of the doubt".
"The government's plan simply isn't working. Another course is needed. That's why I'm calling for a two to three week circuit break in England," he told a news conference.
He said his proposal, which he urged the government to adopt, would not mean schools would close. Instead the temporary lockdown could be timed to take place at the same time as an upcoming school holiday.
Describing the measures as meaning "significant sacrifices across the country", he proposed allowing only essential work and travel, restricting household mixing and that all pubs, bars and restaurants should be closed, but also compensated.
With the number of COVID cases and associated deaths rising across Britain, particularly in the north of England, Johnson has introduced a tiered system to try to better coordinate a response which, for many, had become difficult to understand.
But his adoption of a 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants and restrictions on social mixing has raised tempers in his Conservative Party, with some lawmakers threatening to rebel and vote against his plans later on Tuesday.
Before the vote, which the government is unlikely to lose, Johnson urged his lawmakers to support his new system, which puts regions under differing restrictions depending on the area's risk level of either medium, high or very high.
Addressing a private meeting of Conservative Party lawmakers virtually, the prime minister defended his system, saying a localised response was needed, a lawmaker present said.
Johnson acknowledged that while any restrictions went against his instincts, action was necessary, the lawmaker said, adding that he was given a sympathetic hearing.
But Starmer's words may further pressure Johnson, who has defended his decision not to re-introduce a full lockdown by saying he was trying to protect lives and livelihoods by balancing public health and the economy.
"If we don't do this, the cost to the economy will be much greater in the long run," Starmer said. "If the R-rate continues out of control, it will be the economy that pays in the long run, so this will actually save money in the long run."
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and William James; editing by Stephen Addison)