UK

PM plunges England into even TOUGHER lockdown than March

Boris Johnson plunged England into a national lockdown even more brutal than last March tonight in a desperate bid to keep the mutant coronavirus at bay while vaccines are rolled out.

Just a day after he urged parents to send their children back, the PM declared that primary and secondary schools will be shut from tomorrow until at least February half-term, with only the vulnerable and offspring of key workers allowed to go in.

University students are being told to stay at home and study remotely, while exams are said to be unlikely to go ahead as planned. Non-essential retail, gyms and all hospitality is being ordered to close across the country. Nurseries can stay open.

Cafes, bars and restaurants will be allowed to serve takeaway – but in a tightening from the draconian measures last spring, they will not be allowed to serve any alcohol. Vulnerable people are being told to shield where possible. Communal worship can continue with social distancing in place. 

The public will once again be told they must only leave home for one of five reasons – to go to work if essential, s shop for necessities, exercise – allowed with one other person from another household, care for someone, or to seek medical help.  

The extraordinary third national squeeze will come into effect as soon as regulations are made tomorrow, but Mr Johnson urged the public to adopt the new rules now. MPs will get a vote on them on Wednesday when Parliament is recalled, although there is no prospect of them being defeated. Aides believe there is little chance of them being lifted for at least seven weeks. 

In an address from Downing Street, Mr Johnson said: ‘Our hopsitals are under more pressure than at any time since the start of the pandemic. It’s clear we need to do more.. while our vaccines are rolled out.’   

Ministers were said to have been left with no option after being confronted with dire figures by science chiefs today. Hospital patients with coronavirus had risen by 40 per cent over a week, and are now higher than at the peak of the first wave.  

The scale of the problem was underlined as the latest grim daily tally was released, with 58,784 new cases – a 42 per cent rise on last Monday. 

It means the UK has passed the milestone of 50,000 infections every day for a week, suggesting that the easing of restrictions at Christmas helped fuel the outbreak.

Department of Health chiefs also posted 407 more deaths, up just 14 per cent on the figure recorded last week. But it can take infected patients several weeks to fall severely ill and succumb to the illness, meaning fatalities have yet to reach their peak and will continue to rise. The UK recorded almost 1,000 deaths twice last week, in grisly tolls not seen since the darkest days of the spring.

Nicola Sturgeon announced a drastic crackdown in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon, with a legally-enforced stay at home order from midnight and schools north of the border set to stay closed until February.

Even the Scilly Isles has not escaped, shifting from Tier 1 straight to full lockdown when the restrictions come into force. 

No10 sources insist that the government wants to go back into a tiering system when the virus subsides and vaccinations make it possible.      

Senior Tory MPs had joined Labour in called for the introduction of another national lockdown. But the idea of hardening the restrictions is likely to spark fury from other Conservatives, who insist the country’s experience of the pandemic shows that lockdowns do not work and are crippling the economy. 

On another grim day of coronavirus chaos:

  • Matt Hancock said he is ‘incredibly worried’ about a new South African variant of coronavirus that experts fear might not be caught by the current crop of vaccines;
  • Brian Pinker, an 82-year-old retired maintenance manager from Oxford, has become the first to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine outside of trials;
  • Teaching unions launched a concerted bid to shut down all classrooms despite Boris Johnson’s plea to stay open, leaving millions of parents to begin homeschooling their children for at least a fortnight with often only a few hours’ notice;
  • The latest data show a 33 per cent rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus patients in hospital in England between Christmas Day and January 2. 

Boris Johnson visited Chase Farm Hospital in north London today, with the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine launching

The Joint Biosecurity Centre has recommended today that the Covid-19 alert level be reduced

Jeremy Hunt warned that mutant Covid has put the NHS under 'off the scale' pressure compared to normal winters and the government 'cannot afford to wait' even one more day

Jeremy Hunt warned that mutant Covid has put the NHS under ‘off the scale’ pressure compared to normal winters and the government ‘cannot afford to wait’ even one more day

Three-quarters of England already subject to Tier 4, where only essential shops such as supermarkets are allowed to open and people are meant to stay at home

Three-quarters of England already subject to Tier 4, where only essential shops such as supermarkets are allowed to open and people are meant to stay at home

Mr Johnson confirmed this morning that ‘tougher’ measures were coming despite the optimism sparked by the first Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses being administered – although at that point he appeared to hint he would prefer to stick with the Tier system in England. 

SAGE has cautioned that it is probably impossible to control the new coronavirus variant while they remain open – although experts say a total shutdown still might not be enough to bring the ‘R’ reproduction rate below one.   

Michael Gove held a conference call with the First Ministers from the four nations to coordinate strategies. But in a sign of splits, Wales has said it will push ahead with reopening schools over the next fortnight unless there is new evidence about the variant strain.

Earlier, ex-health secretary Jeremy Hunt joined demands from Labour and Tory MPs for an immediate national squeeze with schools and borders shut and a ban on all household mixing.

Mr Hunt warned that mutant Covid has put the NHS under ‘off the scale’ pressure compared to normal winters and the government ‘cannot afford to wait’ even one more day.

Mr Hunt posted on Twitter: ‘To those arguing winter is always like this in the NHS: you are wrong. I faced four serious winter crises as Health Sec and the situation now is off-the-scale worse than any of those.’

Mr Hunt said the ‘No1 lesson’ from the pandemic is that countries can ‘save lives and get their economies back to normal faster’ if they ‘act early and decisively’.

‘We therefore cannot afford to wait: all schools should be closed, international travel stopped, household mixing limited and the tier system reviewed so that the highest tier really does bring down infection levels,’ Mr Hunt said.   

‘The good news is that unlike before these restrictions will be time limited to the 12 weeks or so it will take to get the vaccine out to those most vulnerable to covid – so there is light at the end of the tunnel.’ 

Mr Hunt was among a growing band of Conservative MPs, including ex-No10 adviser Neil O’Brien, urging emergency steps to tackle the coronavirus surge. 

Labour has also been pushing for a squeeze, with Sadiq Khan saying Mr Hunt was ‘spot on’. 

Earlier Matt Hancock suggested the first step will be to escalate even more of the country into Tier 4, saying Tier 3 did not seem able to hold back the more infectious version of the deadly disease.

He insisted the problem was partly down to people failing to obey the rules, amid calls from some MPs for police to be given more powers.  

But there were questions about how much more impact extending the coverage of Tier 4 could have, given three-quarters of England is already subject to the harshest bracket, where only essential shops such as supermarkets are allowed to open and people are meant to stay at home. 

Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director for Public Health England (PHE), said the latest daily figures were a ‘bitter warning’ about the threat.

‘The continuous rise in cases and deaths should be a bitter warning for us all. We must not forget the basics – the lives of our friends and family depend on it,’ she said. 

Speaking during a visit to Chase Farm Hospital in north London this morning, Mr Johnson warned of ‘tough tough’ weeks to come. 

He added: ‘If you look at the numbers there’s no question we will have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course.’ 

Mr Johnson tried to strike a positive note, promising there will be a ‘massive ramp up’ in vaccination numbers.

He added: ‘There’s a massive ramp up operation now going on.

‘The rate limiting factor is now not supply of vaccines although we want that to go faster, it’s getting them properly tested and getting them to the NHS.

‘It’s not the ability to distribute the vaccine, it’s not the shortage of staff.

‘It’s getting it properly tested. That will ramp up in the weeks ahead.’

Asked in a round of interviews about the prospect of a national lockdown, Mr Hancock said: ‘We don’t rule anything out, and we’ve shown repeatedly that we will look at the public health advice and we will take the public health advice in terms of what is needed to control the spread of the disease.’

Pressed whether changes could be announced over the next 24 hours, he replied: ‘We have shown we are ready to move incredibly quickly… We look at the data on a daily basis.’ 

Mr Hancock said the ‘old tier system is no longer strong enough’ because the new variant is ‘much easier to catch, it is much more transmissible, and we’re now seeing the effect of that in lots of different parts of the country’.

Challenged on Sky News over whether Tier 4 restrictions work, Mr Hancock said: ‘It is down to people’s behaviour, frankly. What matters is, yes of course, the rules that we put in place, but it is also about how people act.

‘And frankly what I would say is this: it is critical that everybody in the country does all that they can to reduce the spread of the virus.’  

In a stark message about the length of the fight the UK faces, Mr Hancock said the problem was ‘how we collectively as a society keep this under control for the next couple of months… until the vaccines can make us safe’. 

The Government’s ‘Covid-O’ committee, which makes decisions on lockdown restrictions, is thought to have meet today to decide on the next steps to take.  

Ms Sturgeon announced this afternoon that Scotland will be plunged back into a national coronavirus lockdown from midnight.

The SNP leader said the new crackdown, lasting all of January, will include a legally enforceable stay-at-home rule.

Scotland in national lockdown from midnight 

Scotland will be plunged back into a national coronavirus lockdown from midnight this evening, Nicola Sturgeon announced this afternoon.

The SNP leader said the new crackdown, lasting all of January, will include a legally enforceable stay-at-home rule.

Exercise and essential journeys will be the only reasons why people will be allowed to leave their homes.

The planned reopening of schools on January 18 is also being pushed back to February 1 at the earliest while workers are being instructed to work from home wherever possible.

Rules on outdoor gatherings will be tightened to allow a maximum of just two people from two households to meet.

Meanwhile, places of worship will be closed from this Friday but weddings and funerals will still be allowed to go ahead.

A maximum of 20 people will be allowed to attend funeral services and a maximum of five people will be allowed to attend weddings.

Ms Sturgeon said the tough new curbs are necessary because of the ‘steeply rising’ rate of infections north of the border as she warned the lockdown could be extended beyond January if necessary.

The measures effectively mean a return to the restrictions seen during the first UK-wide lockdown which was imposed at the end of March last year.

All of mainland Scotland is already placed in the highest tier of Covid-19 rules but case numbers have prompted Ms Sturgeon to take more drastic action after 2,464 new cases were announced yesterday.

Exercise and essential journeys will be the only reasons why people will be allowed to leave their homes.

The planned reopening of schools on January 18 is also being pushed back to February 1 at the earliest while workers are being instructed to work from home wherever possible.

Rules on outdoor gatherings will be tightened to allow a maximum of just two people from two households to meet.

Meanwhile, places of worship will be closed from this Friday but weddings and funerals will still be allowed to go ahead.

A maximum of 20 people will be allowed to attend funeral services and a maximum of five people will be allowed to attend weddings.

Ms Sturgeon said the tough new curbs are necessary because of the ‘steeply rising’ rate of infections north of the border as she warned the lockdown could be extended beyond January if necessary.

The measures effectively mean a return to the restrictions seen during the first UK-wide lockdown which was imposed at the end of March last year.

All of mainland Scotland is already placed in the highest tier of Covid-19 rules but case numbers have prompted Ms Sturgeon to take more drastic action after 2,464 new cases were announced yesterday.

Mr Johnson said yesterday that he is also considering further closures of schools. 

But Mr Hancock said this morning that people should keep obeying the rules – which mean most primaries are meant to be back this week.

He told Times Radio that people understood why the Government was changing its position.

He said: ‘One of the big challenges in the middle of a pandemic is that the data changes, and therefore the public health advice rightly changes, and we have to change our position.

‘One of the interesting things as Health Secretary I’ve noticed over the last year is that people get that, right?

‘People get that the virus moves – we’ve seen this new variant making things much, much harder because it spreads so much easier and then we have to update our position based on updated public health advice.

‘On schools, our approach is we should follow that public health advice.’

Health Secretary Matt Hancock put Britons on notice that stronger restrictions will be needed for months, despite the optimism sparked by the first Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses being administered

Health Secretary Matt Hancock put Britons on notice that stronger restrictions will be needed for months, despite the optimism sparked by the first Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses being administered

First Briton to get Oxford jab outside trials is 82-year-old dialysis patient 

Britain today started to dish out Oxford’s game-changing Covid vaccine in what has been called a ‘pivotal moment’ in the fight against the pandemic, with an 82-year-old dialysis patient becoming the first person to receive the jab.

Brian Pinker, a retired maintenance manager who describes himself as Oxford born and bred, said he was ‘so pleased’ to be getting the vaccine and was ‘really proud’ it was developed in his city.

Mr Pinker, who is now looking forward to celebrating his 48th wedding anniversary next month with wife Shirley, received the coronavirus vaccine at 7.30am at Oxford’s Churchill Hospital.

In the biggest vaccination drive in British history, half a million doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca jab will be made available for vulnerable people this week with ‘tens of millions’ promised by April.

Chiefs at AstraZeneca had previously suggested up to 2million doses a week could be ready by mid-January and officials have promised to deliver the jabs as quickly as they get them.

But that ambitious target may be further off than hoped, with fears that the UK won’t receive enough supplies until February. Matt Hancock today revealed increasing the country’s manufacturing capacity was ‘a big medium-term project’.

And he said the ‘bureaucracy’ involved in signing up to be a volunteer vaccinator is being reduced, after it was revealed last week that thousands of retired medics who are trying to help dish out the jabs were tied up in red tape.  

However, in a joint statement, education unions said staff were at ‘serious risk’ of infection.

The statement, signed by GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite, said: ‘The Government’s chaotic handling of the opening of schools has caused confusion for teachers, school staff and parents alike.

‘Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic.

‘Unions have called for a pause in the reopening of schools for anyone other than vulnerable children and children of key workers, and a move to remote learning for all while Covid-secure working arrangements are reviewed. All school staff continuing to work in schools should be given priority access to Covid-19 vaccinations.

‘Instead of casually asserting that schools are safe, the Prime Minister should sit down with unions to discuss a joint approach to ensuring safe working arrangements in all schools and prioritising enabling all pupils to have the equipment and access they need to receive a high standard of remote learning until the safety of them and the staff in their school can be guaranteed.’

SAGE member John Edmunds said tonight that the UK was on track to record more than 100,000 deaths. 

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine scientist told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: ‘We’re in a really difficult situation.

‘The new strain is significantly more transmissible than the old strains. So we have to take significant extra measures to stop the NHS from becoming overwhelmed with Covid patients.

‘Unfortunately we are going to have to take some really major additional measures, I can’t see any other way out of it.

‘The biggest lever that has only partly been pulled is school closures. That would have the biggest effect of a single measure and I can see that happening.’

He later added: ‘What we have to do now, and it’s horrible I know, but we have to take really quite stringent steps right now and as stringent as we can right now.’

Prof Edmunds rejected suggestions that a lack of public compliance with restrictions is a major issue, saying: ‘I don’t think that’s a major issue myself, I think people are pretty compliant.’

As pressure grew on the PM earlier, the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council joined calls for a new ‘lockdown’ amid rising case rates.

Speaking to BBC Radio WM, Cllr Ian Ward said that in the past week there had been a 36 per cent increase in the city’s seven-day case rate.

He added: ‘The NHS here in the city is under intensive pressure. University Hospital Birmingham has 98 per cent of its intensive care beds occupied and Sandwell and City (hospitals trust) has 100 per cent of its intensive care beds occupied.

‘We need decisive action now and the Government needs to act early for once and get ahead of the curve.’ 

On a more optimistic front, the UK today started to dish out Oxford’s game-changing Covid vaccine in what has been called a ‘pivotal moment’ in the fight against the pandemic, with an 82-year-old dialysis patient becoming the first person to receive the jab.

Brian Pinker, a retired maintenance manager who describes himself as Oxford born and bred, said he was ‘so pleased’ to be getting the vaccine and was ‘really proud’ it was developed in his city.

Mr Pinker, who is now looking forward to celebrating his 48th wedding anniversary next month with wife Shirley, received the coronavirus vaccine at 7.30am at Oxford’s Churchill Hospital.

In the biggest vaccination drive in British history, half a million doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca jab will be made available for vulnerable people this week with ‘tens of millions’ promised by April.

Chiefs at AstraZeneca had previously suggested up to 2million doses a week could be ready by mid-January and officials have promised to deliver the jabs as quickly as they get them.

But that ambitious target may be further off than hoped, with fears that the UK won’t receive enough supplies until February. Matt Hancock today revealed increasing the country’s manufacturing capacity was ‘a big medium-term project’.

And he said the ‘bureaucracy’ involved in signing up to be a volunteer vaccinator is being reduced, after it was revealed last week that thousands of retired medics who are trying to help dish out the jabs were tied up in red tape.

 Mr Hancock insisted the manufacturing process will be the deciding factor in how fast vaccines can be deployed, rather than the NHS operation.

Covid alert going to top level over fears NHS will not cope  

The Covil alert is being raised to its highest level over fears the NHS will not be able to cope with soaring cases.

The UK’s four chief medical officers have recommended the change from level four to five following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

In a statement, they said: ‘Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure. 

‘There are currently very high rates of community transmission, with substantial numbers of COVID patients in hospitals and in intensive care. 

‘Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant. 

‘We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.

However, they urged people who need urgent attention to come forward stressing it is still possible to give ‘lifesaving treatment’. 

‘It is absolutely critical that people still come forward for emergency care. If you require non-urgent medical attention, please contact your GP or call NHS111,’ the statement said. 

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘If the NHS needs to go faster, then it will go faster. If there were two million doses a week being delivered, then the NHS would deliver at that speed.

‘That’s the critical question, but that supply isn’t there yet, and we are working very closely with the manufacturers.’

Last night Sir Keir Starmer demanded an immediate nationwide lockdown as he warned the ‘virus is clearly out of control’. The Labour leader added: ‘Let’s not have the Prime Minister saying, ‘I’m going to do it, but not yet’.

‘That’s the problem he has made so many times. Nationwide lockdown – the Prime Minister has hinted that that’s going to happen, but he’s delaying again; and we can’t afford that again.’

Appearing on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One yesterday, Mr Johnson said he was ‘entirely reconciled to doing what it takes to get the virus down’ and warned of a ‘tough period ahead’.

He said vaccinating more people would provide a way out of restrictions and that he hoped ‘tens of millions’ would be vaccinated in the next three months.

The Prime Minister stuck by his prediction that the situation would be better by the spring, but added: ‘It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that will be tougher in many parts of the country. 

‘I’m fully, fully reconciled to that – and I bet the people of this country are reconciled to that because until the vaccine really comes on stream in a massive way, we’re fighting this virus with the same set of tools.’

Mr Johnson said the Government was assessing whether Tier Four restrictions were tough enough to control the spread of the virus or if further steps were needed, adding: ‘We’ve got to keep things under constant review.’

Asked whether people could be restricted to an hour’s exercise a day or a complete ban on any households mixing could be introduced, he replied: ‘There are obviously a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider. I’m not going to speculate now about what they would be.

This map shows how the coronavirus variants have been tracked as they spread around the world

This map shows how the coronavirus variants have been tracked as they spread around the world 

Social distancing signs displayed at Coldfall Primary School in Muswell Hill, London, on January 2 as Covid cases across the capital city have been putting rising pressure on the NHS

Social distancing signs displayed at Coldfall Primary School in Muswell Hill, London, on January 2 as Covid cases across the capital city have been putting rising pressure on the NHS

‘Clearly, school closures – which we had to do in March – is one of those things. It’s not something we necessarily want to do.’

Government sources confirmed ministers were looking at putting even more areas of England into Tier Four – although curfews are not currently thought to be imminent.

But Tory former minister Sir Desmond Swayne was among those condemning the idea of tightening the curbs. ‘What more pain do they want to cause us? What are they going to stop us doing now?’ he told the Telegraph. 

‘Close down essential shops and the takeaways? The whole thing is madness – it’s going beyond ridiculous.’  


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