Boris Johnson is set to announce severe new Covid-19 restrictions across England later on Monday — including school closures — as Downing Street admitted that cases of the virus were “rapidly escalating”.
The UK prime minister will deliver a national address at 8pm and the House of Commons will be recalled on Wednesday to debate the new measures and the escalating health emergency, with speculation the prime minister will put the country into a third national lockdown.
Several Whitehall officials told the Financial Times that the Cabinet agreed on Monday afternoon that primary and secondary schools would probably close until the mid-February half-term break, reflecting the seriousness of the situation. Mr Johnson has previously not ruled out school closures in spite of his desire to keep them open. Downing Street declined to comment.
“The spread of the new variant of Covid-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country,” Downing Street said. “The prime minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives.”
Number 10 declined to dismiss the possibility of curfews to force the country to stay at home.
Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced a lockdown and a legal stay-at-home order across the nation from midnight to control the new strain of the virus.
Scots will be allowed out only for “essential reasons” such as shopping or exercise until at least the end of January. All schools will be closed for most pupils.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has called for a national lockdown in England and Jeremy Hunt, former Tory health secretary, wrote on Twitter on Monday: “We need to close schools, borders, and ban all household mixing RIGHT AWAY.”
Mr Johnson met ministers on Monday to discuss how to respond to the surge in infections, with Covid-19 hospitalisations in England up by one-third in a week.
Already 78 per cent of people in England live under tier 4 — the highest level of restrictions — but scientists have warned that the measures are not tough enough and that a de facto tier 5, or national lockdown, is needed.
Ms Sturgeon said Scotland was in a similar situation with coronavirus to that which London was in four weeks ago, since when infections and hospital admissions in the capital have soared.
While infection rates in Scotland were still substantially lower than in many areas of England, quick and decisive action was still needed, the first minister said.
“The situation in some other parts of the UK, where case numbers are already much higher than here — and where the contribution of the new variant is already greater — shows what may lie ahead if we don’t,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“Delay or prevarication in the face of this virus almost always makes things worse,” she added.
While schools in Scotland would be closed to most pupils and there would be a legal requirement to stay at home except for essential reasons, there would be no limit on the time people spent outside for exercise, Ms Sturgeon said.
However, limits on outdoor contacts will be tightened, with only two people aged 12 or over from two different households allowed to meet at a time.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, told the BBC Today programme on Monday that there were some “tier 3 areas of the country where the virus is spreading and increasing”. “In fact, they are some of the areas where it’s spreading fastest.”
Mr Johnson wants to keep schools open if possible but the sharp rise in virus cases, accompanied by a refusal by some teachers to work on Monday, could force his hand.
Some schools across the country wrote to parents on Sunday evening and Monday that children would have to stay at home because widespread staff absences meant they could no longer open safely.
In an unusual joint statement, six unions representing education staff called on Monday for remote learning while schools were made Covid-19 secure and for staff to be given priority access to the vaccine.
Earlier on Monday the UK became the first country to administer the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
In a statement, the NHS said that Brian Pinker, an 82-year-old kidney dialysis patient, received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab at Oxford’s Churchill Hospital. The vaccine was approved for emergency use by the UK regulator last week.
The vaccine will be administered at a small number of hospitals in the first few days for surveillance reasons, before being rolled out to general practice-led services later in the week.
Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca chief executive, has said that his company could supply 2m doses of the vaccine each week to the UK.
Asked how soon vaccinations could take place at that rate, Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, told BBC Breakfast on Monday: “Certainly this month we’ll be able to get up to that sort of number but that would depend on supplies. We’ll be delivering it as soon as we get it.”
The UK is betting on a pragmatic approach to immunisations by lengthening the period between vaccine doses in an attempt to deploy wider immunity amid the rapidly resurging outbreak, which has put some hospitals under severe strain.
Additional reporting by Donato Paolo Mancini and Sarah Neville in London