Boris Johnson told Britain yesterday to prepare for what will in effect be a third national lockdown, including further school closures, as he pledged to “do what it takes” to get Covid-19 case numbers under control.
The prime minister is expected to make an assessment of the latest infection numbers by Wednesday that will include the first signs of the effect of easing social distancing over Christmas.
Downing Street sources warned that this was likely to result in more areas of England being placed into Tier 4 restrictions and additional school closures in the worst affected areas. “It’s not something we want to do but it may be what the data requires,” they said.
In a downbeat assessment the prime minister warned of “very difficult” weeks and months ahead until enough people had been vaccinated to start bringing infection rates down. He said he was “fully reconciled” to yet more tough restrictions.
Mr Johnson told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One yesterday: “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.”
He urged parents to send their children back to school this week in areas where they remained open, but did not rule out further closures, saying that the situation was under constant review.
“The priority has got to be children’s education,” he said, adding: “We’ve got to be humble in the face of the impact of this new variant of the virus.”
Amid a growing revolt, a number of councils pledged to back schools that decided to stay closed. The biggest teaching union warned staff that their workplaces were unsafe and they should stay at home. Some primary schools that were due to open in Essex, Berkshire and Kent will now shut their doors for at least two weeks. A number of councils have asked the Department of Education to be included on the list of areas where schools will not reopen.
Senior epidemiologists said that Mr Johnson was likely to have little choice but to order schools in large parts of the country to close. “I have been and still am an advocate of schools being the last thing to close,” said Alan McNally, a professor at Birmingham University who has worked on the government’s Covid testing programme. “But the Covid situation now is as bad or worse than March. [We] will see huge amounts of Covid being taken into homes by schoolchildren.”
Sir Mark Walport, a former chief scientific adviser who is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said it was “pretty clear” that tougher measures were needed. “It’s the Tier 4 restrictions — it’s obeying them. It is thinking about breaking essentially every possible route of transmission we possibly can,” he said.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said that a new national lockdown should be declared within 24 hours. Accusing Mr Johnson of presiding over “chaos”, he insisted it was “inevitable” that more schools would need to shut. “The virus is clearly out of control,” he said. “We can’t allow the prime minister to use up the next two or three weeks and then bring in a national lockdown, which is inevitable.” He added: “I don’t want to call for the closure of schools and add to the chaos, but we do need to recognise that it is inevitable that more schools will close, and we need a plan in place to deal with it.”
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, said her ministers would meet today to discuss lockdown measures.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, said that the number of Covid hospital patients had risen by 5,800 since Christmas Day.