Lockdown looms as Boris Johnson to address UK on Covid-19 crisis

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce new coronavirus restrictions tonight with a third national lockdown for England looking almost inevitable.

Parliament will be recalled from recess on Wednesday to debate the latest changes after a surge in cases forced the premier into action. He will speak on television at 8 p.m. on Monday. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appeared to anticipate the move and said she’ll implement a lockdown from midnight.

A faster-spreading mutation of the virus threatens to overwhelm hospitals and has thrown the premier’s plan to get English children back into classrooms into disarray. He had hoped Monday’s focus would be on celebrating the delivery of the first shots of a Covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc.

“The spread of the new variant of COVID-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country,” Johnson’s office said in a statement on Monday afternoon. “The prime minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives.”

Johnson’s government is back in crisis mode, with new virus cases exceeding 50,000 a day and hospital admissions soaring past the peak of the first wave in April. Johnson, who ended the year on a high by securing a last-minute trade deal with the European Union, on Monday warned a “surging epidemic” means stricter rules are coming.

ITV reported the government plans to put the whole of England into Tier 4, the highest level in its system of restrictions, meaning non-essential shops will have to close and further curbs will be placed on socializing. Tier 4 rules effectively mirror the second lockdown in November, and already govern about 75% of England’s population.

“If you look at the numbers there’s no question we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said in a pooled TV interview earlier Monday. “We will do everything we can to keep the virus under control.”

Sturgeon stole a march on Johnson by ordering people to remain at home and by keeping schools closed. The resurgent virus gave her no choice, she told Scots. “We are now in a race between the vaccine and the virus,” she said.

Former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was among those calling for Johnson to impose an immediate national lockdown. Writing on Twitter, he said schools and borders should be closed and all household mixing banned.

Hunt’s successor Matt Hancock warned Monday there would be “some very difficult weeks ahead.”

It’s a far cry from the government’s optimism in early December, when the arrival of vaccines was dubbed the “scientific cavalry” to the rescue. The picture changed dramatically when the emergence of a faster spreading strain of Covid-19 led to the introduction of a stricter fourth tier of regional coronavirus rules that hammered retailers reliant on Christmas shoppers.

School Dilemma

In the November shutdown, schools remained open, reflecting the government’s promise to keep in-person classes going. On Monday, Johnson gave mixed messages on schools, saying that while they are safe to open, “all measures” are “under review” because of the role they play in spreading the virus.

“The issue is the extent to which the mingling of kids in schools by putting lots of households together cause the epidemic to spread even faster,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later on in the month.”

In the meantime, many schools have openly defied orders to open. Opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer said the country should immediately return to a full lockdown, and unions on Monday called for employers to offer parents paid time off to cope with childcare if schools remain closed.

Matt Ashton, director of public health in Liverpool, said “much stronger national controls” are needed now. “We cannot afford to wait any longer,” he said on Twitter.

Government U-Turns

Throughout the pandemic, the government has been forced to backtrack on efforts to reopen the economy, especially as the resurgent virus pushes public health services to the brink. Most recently, Johnson was forced to curtail plans to relax social-distancing over Christmas.

But tougher restrictions are likely to cause Johnson more trouble among Conservative Party MPs, many of whom oppose any action that would further damage the economy.

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs who oppose curbs on people’s freedoms, said on Monday vaccination of the over 65s must mark “a clear threshold for when a substantial relaxation in restrictions can begin.”

“The government must urgently set out exactly how the vaccination roll-out will translate into a return to normal life for us all in 2021,” he said in a statement. He called on the government to set out “how and when it will lift restrictions and when our freedoms, economy and health prospects will be fully restored.”

Much will now depend on how fast the National Health Service can administer vaccine doses. Johnson said there is a “massive ramping up operation” now going on to vaccinate the UK population, promising that “tens of millions” of doses will have been delivered by the end of March.

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