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Wales locks down as COVID-19 cases spike; Manchester resists

LONDON – Wales became the second nation in the United Kingdom to lock down large swaths of its economy to combat rising coronavirus infections, even as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday resisted loud calls to do the same throughout England.

Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford said Monday administration was backing a short, sharp “firebreak” to slow the spread of COVID-19. All non-essential retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses will close for two weeks beginning at 6 p.m. Friday — a lockdown similar in scope to the U.K.-wide measures imposed in March.

“This is the moment to come together to play our part in a common endeavor to do everything we can together to protect the (National Health Service) and to save lives,'' Drakeford said.

Authorities across the U.K. are imposing new restrictions on business and social interactions as COVID-19 infections rise throughout all age groups and parts of the country, filling hospital beds and intensive care wards. One of their main goals is to reduce the strain on the NHS ahead of the winter flu season.

Public health experts say a lockdown can help reset the pandemic at a lower level, giving doctors time to treat the ill and providing breathing room for the government to improve its response. Britain has the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with over 43,700 confirmed deaths.

Drakeford said the Welsh lockdown will definitely end Nov. 9.

“The benefit will be seen in the weeks that follow,'' Drakeford said.

Northern Ireland has already ordered schools to close for the next two weeks, banned most social gatherings and shut down many businesses including bars and restaurants for a month.

The Welsh decision came as officials in Greater Manchester continue to reject efforts by Johnson's Conservative government to move the region into the highest level of restrictions in the three-tier system Johnson unveiled for England a week ago. While the government’s scientific advisers have recommended a short national lockdown, Johnson says his tiered, regional approach limits the economic and social damage from the pandemic on areas where infection rates are lower.

Johnson’s government said the talks with authorities in Manchester must be completed urgently because the public health situation is deteriorating, but local officials were holding out for more financial assistance for those hurt by the restrictions.

“Disappointingly, we have still not been able to reach an agreement," the British government said Monday in a statement. It said it was "carefully considering next steps.”

Johnson's government has threatened to impose the measures unilaterally if an agreement can’t be reached.

Sean Fielding, a council leader in the Manchester area, told the BBC that local leaders are trying to protect residents from the government’s “untested” strategy. Fielding said a short national lockdown would be “much less painful because it will be for a shorter period."

“It will be cheaper in the long run as well, because you will only have to provide that financial support for those few weeks whereas this could run on and on and on beyond Christmas,” he said.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told Sky News that a deal was not just about the “size of the check.’’ Local officials want to protect low-paid workers, self-employed people and businesses that may collapse under the restrictions, he said.

“We’ve always said we would put people’s health first, and we will do that,” he said. “But health is about more than controlling the virus — people’s mental health, I think, is now pretty low given that we’ve been under restrictions here for three months already.”

Under the U.K.’s system of devolved government, the regional administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales control health policy in their areas and the U.K. government makes the rules for England.

Johnson’s three-tier strategy applies only to England, but he says he will coordinate with the devolved administrations in other parts of the U.K.

“We have worked closely with the devolved administrations at every step of the pandemic response and we will continue to do so," said James Slack, the prime minister's spokesman. “I think there are more similarities in our approaches than there are differences.”

“The prime minister continues to believe that targeted local action in those areas with high prevalence of the virus is the correct course” for England, he said.

The Liverpool and Lancashire areas are so far the only parts of England to be placed in the highest-risk tier, forcing the closure of pubs and restaurants, and banning meetings with other households indoors or outside.

London is in tier two, which prohibits indoor gatherings of people from different households.

Even this is controversial.

Hospitality workers, including high-profile chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi, demonstrated Monday outside Parliament, banging metal cooking implements and carrying signs such as “For the many, not the curfew" and “Let us serve cake.”

Ottolenghi said he, too, favored a “circuit-break'' lockdown with strong financial government backing, rather than incremental restrictions that are slowly killing the industry.

“It’s really hard," he said. “We’ve got a great industry with lots of heart, and nobody works in the hospitality industry to get rich. We do it because we love what we’re doing — and there’s so many people who depend on it,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak