“I know it’s unpopular,” the first senior Labour MP to call for a lockdown said.
“Someone put it to me the other day about the economic effects, and people will lose their jobs and the companies being hit, that will have health effects.
“But you can revive the economy over time, you can’t resurrect the dead.”
It came as MPs were shown unpublished official data by chief medical officer Chris Whitty – leaked to HuffPost UK – suggesting more than 32% of Covid-19 “exposure” was in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants.
In a briefing with northern and Midlands MPs, health minister Edward Argar however insisted the government had still not made a decision on whether hospitality venues in locally locked down areas should be ordered to close to curb infections.
The approach to local lockdowns has sparked anger among northern leaders, who feel they have not been consulted and are concerned that economically devastating restrictions are not even bringing down the number of infections.
McDonnell said people are “totally confused” about the patchwork of rules, which are “very difficult to enforce”, and called for “absolute simplicity” via a national lockdown, including stay at home orders, a ban on households mixing and the closure of pubs
The Hayes and Harlington MP said he had daughters in Pendle and Burnley and a cousin in Liverpool and pointed out that London infection rates are worse than they were in many northern areas when they were placed into lockdown.
“I can’t see any other route through – to have some form of quite severe lockdown for a limited period while we get test and trace up and running effectively, and in that way I think we’ll preserve lives,” he said.
“I just think there’s a clarity, an absolute clarity about what the rules are wherever you are, that’s quite important.”
Acknowledging his views were “hardline”, McDonnell added: “I’m really worried that we face the nightmare situation that we were worried about four months ago, that we now go into the normal flu pandemic situation and that the coronavirus spike happens at the same time.”
But he acknowledged that the idea of a two-week circuit break could work.
“The government were talking about that two-week contact break, I want to see a break based upon the ability to deliver an effective test and trace system,” McDonnell said.
“Because unless we get that up and running, and if that takes a couple of weeks let’s do it, unless we get that up and running I don’t know how we can manage this situation.”
The senior Labour MP also praised Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who this week banned the sale of alcohol indoors at pubs, restaurants and cafes for more than two weeks.
“I think the way that she’s approached it is the route that I would go down, I might be a bit more severe in some cases,” he said.
It came as 149 MPs were called into a briefing with health minister Argar and chief medical officer Whitty.
Slides leaked to HuffPost UK from the meeting illustrated the government’s concerns about Covid spreading in pubs and restaurants.
The MPs were also shown slides outlining hospitalisations from coronavirus rising, particularly in Yorkshire, the north-east and the north-west.
But Argar batted away questions about reports that hospitality venues across the north and Midlands could be ordered to close from Monday under a new three-tier local lockdown system, insisting ministers were still taking decisions.
One MP suggested ministers have worked out what restrictions will apply in the lower two tiers but not what should form the basis of the harshest local lockdowns in “tier-3”.
One told HuffPost UK: “(Argar) was asked about the possibility of a circuit break lockdown of two to three weeks and it wasn’t really answered.
“He passed it over to Chris Whitty to answer without touching the policy, just going on the science.
“I think we might be going into tier-3 lockdown but nobody knows what tier-3 is and I haven’t heard that officially.
“They said it was a decision for ministers and they were working hard to get clarity.”