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A cabinet minister today refused to rule out a national “circuit breaker” lockdown as the Covid-19 crisis grew with the number of confirmed cases for London rising above 8,000 a week.

Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey insisted the Government wants time to see if its three-tier system, which came into force today, can stop the epidemic spreading, saying: “So far we have the three tiers and we need to make sure that we give that the chance to work.”

But ministers are coming under growing pressure to act more decisively with a “circuit breaker” intervention of far stricter measures as Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths linked to the virus rise in many areas.

Scientists say thousands of lives could be saved this winter by a “circuit breaker”, with stringent restrictions which could include extending the school-half term break for a week, closing pubs and further limits on mixing between households.

It could also buy time to improve measures to combat the epidemic, including improving the test-and-trace system which is said to be having just a “marginal” impact on stopping the virus spreading.

However, a national lockdown would be a major blow to many businesses and a U-turn from the Government. One idea being mooted is regional “circuit breakers” instead.

Ms Coffey told Sky News that she did not believe the Prime Minister wanted to set off on a national lockdown “but as ever he is advised by scientists, he takes that decision in the round and tries to understand”.

Pressed on whether the country was heading for a national lockdown in the next two weeks, she added: “I don’t believe that is the case but as I say this will continue to be a decision that the Prime Minister will lead on in order to make that judgment.”

Ministers and officials were holding “gold-level” talks today on possible further restrictions for parts of England, including London, as:

Business chiefs and some MPs hit out at a “circuit break” lockdown, with former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith saying: “This is not a circuit breaker, it’s a business breaker.”

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases for the capital increased to 8,197 in the week to October 9, compared with 6,083 for the previous seven days, with eight boroughs now above the key 100 new cases a week per 100,000 population.

Mayor Sadiq Khan has put the city on notice that a tier 2 clampdown, which would see a ban on mixing between households indoors, may be just days away.

Khan: ‘Inevitable’ London will soon hit tier two coronavirus level

In Northern Ireland, schools are due to shut for two weeks, and pubs and restaurants for four, in a lockdown starting next week.

Parts of the North and possibly Midlands could follow Liverpool into tier 3 restrictions, which ban social mixing indoors and in private gardens. Pubs have to close unless they can operate as restaurants serving “substantial meals”, with which customers can drink alcohol.

However, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the Government “has not discussed” whether his area will be moved into tier 3 status later today and vowed to oppose the move.

The Welsh government is “very actively talking about and preparing for” a circuit-breaker lockdown in Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford said. He called on the UK Government to consider adopting a short-term lockdown in England, recommended by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies more than three weeks ago.

Sir Keir Starmer calls for short national lockdown

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is calling for a “circuit break” of two to three weeks, with schools staying open, to avoid the country “sleepwalking into a long and bleak winter”. All pubs, bars and restaurants should be closed, with firms compensated so “no business loses out”.

Professor Matt Keeling, one of the scientists behind a paper claiming an “intense” circuit-breaker lockdown of two weeks could save lives, said: “We were thinking to coincide with half-term to minimise any impact on education and then it is a political decision balancing economics against health.”

Hundreds of students pictured partying in the street in Liverpool were condemned for putting vulnerable people in danger with their “selfish” behaviour.

On growing Covid concern at Westminster, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle told Times Radio: “What we have got to watch out, (is that) MPs could easily become superspreaders because they come from all parts of the country.”

Any new restrictions in London are likely to be city-wide and the infection rate for the capital as a whole has risen to close to 90 cases per 100,000 people. Ealing has the highest Covid-19 rate in London at 136.9 cases per 100,000 in the week to October 9, with 468 cases, according to an analysis by the Standard. Richmond has a rate of 133.3 (264 cases), Hackney and the City of London area 124.8 (363 cases with the vast majority of them in Hackney), Redbridge 124.5 (380 cases), Harrow 114.7 (288 cases), Haringey 109.4 (294), Barnet 106.3 (421), and Hammersmith & Fulham 101 (187).

Hear more on today’s Leader podcast:

Four boroughs have reached a rate of at least 98, Hounslow, Kingston, Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth. The figures for Richmond and some other particularly wealthy boroughs, are believed to being affected by students testing positive at universities but being recorded at their home address.