Boris Johnson’s government is on the brink of another pandemic U-turn with a third national lockdown looking increasingly inevitable.
A surge in infections threatens to overwhelm hospitals and throws his plan to get English children back into classrooms into disarray on a day the British prime minister had hoped to celebrate the delivery of the first shots of a Covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca Plc.
Instead the 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 that a “surging epidemic” means stricter rules are coming.
“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 Monday in a pooled TV interview. “We will do everything we can to keep the virus under control.”
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 shut down non-essential shops and hammered retailers reliant on Christmas shoppers.
By the end of 2020, about 75% of England’s population was covered by the new highest tier 4 rules -- which effectively mirror the conditions of the country’s second lockdown in November.
In that 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.
In the short-term, Hancock suggested the first move may be to move areas currently still in England’s tier 3 up into the strictest level.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has been forced to backtrack on efforts to reopen the economy, especially as the virus’s winter resurgence pushes public health services to the brink. Most recently, Johnson was forced to curtail plans to relax social-distancing rules 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.
For the government, much will now depend on fast the National Health Service can administer vaccine doses. Johnson said there is a “massive ramping up operation” now going on to vaccinate the U.K. population, promising that “tens of millions” of doses will have been delivered by the end of March.
“The cavalry is here,” Hancock told LBC radio. “We’ve got to all do our bit for the next few weeks and then we’re going to be through it.”