Boris Johnson has warned that he is ready to impose tougher measures to contain the spread of Covid-19, including the closure of schools, in a sombre new year’s interview.
Mr Johnson said he was “reconciled to doing what it takes”, admitting the country faced a tough start to 2021 as the virus continued to spread and with vaccines only gradually being deployed.
The prime minister said that while schools were safe, it might be necessary to close them to control the spread of the virus in parts of England that were in tier 4 — a designation that already affects 78 per cent of the population.
“The question is can we bring the virus under control and keep schools open?” Mr Johnson said in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr. “We will keep things under constant review.”
He said that closing schools was “not something we necessarily want to do”, but added: “we are entirely reconciled to doing what it takes to get the virus down. That may involve tougher measures in the weeks ahead.”
Mr Johnson said that ministers were considering whether measures in tier 4 were tough enough to control the virus; the prime minister declined to use the phrase “tier 5” but that is how it is likely to be seen.
Tier 4 includes tight social restrictions, the closure of non-essential retail and advice to work from home; the big difference between tier 4 and the March 2020 lockdown is that ministers have tried to keep schools open.
The number of beds occupied by confirmed Covid patients soared by 33 per cent in England between Christmas Day and January 2, according to the latest official data, with the highest increases in the east of England, London and the south east: respectively rises of 50 per cent, 46 per cent and 45 per cent.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers that represents health organisations across the country, said the increase amounted to “12 more hospitals full of Covid inpatients in just eight days”.
Meanwhile, six hospitals — two in London, and others in Brighton, Oxford, Lancashire and Warwickshire — will become the first to administer the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on Monday. Up to 100 more hospital sites, and another 180 GP-led sites, are due to join the rollout this week subject to final checks, the health department said.
Mr Johnson is already taking tougher action on schools. On New Year’s Day, in a policy U-turn, the government decided to keep all primary schools in London closed on January 4, having previously planned to keep them open in 10 boroughs deemed to have lower rates of infection.
Primary schools in London and other parts of the south of England will therefore remain closed until January 18; secondary schools and colleges are set to remain closed for most pupils in England — except those studying for exams — until the same date.
But the government faced a revolt from teachers over the weekend as the National Education Union advised members in primary schools set to stay open to work from home, on the basis it would be “unsafe” to return to work.
Separately, the two main headteachers’ unions launched a legal action against the government, challenging the scientific basis for its decisions and demanding remote education for the first two weeks of term.
Mr Johnson’s aides insisted the government was sticking to its policy of holding GCSEs and A-level exams in England this summer, in spite of the disruption being caused to schooling.
The prime minister said the use of mass testing at secondary schools would “make an important difference”. Primary schools in most of England were due to return on Monday.