BORIS Johnson warned today that the national lockdown could stretch until the end of MARCH – but promised schools would be the first things to reopen.
The PM stressed that the restrictions would fade out gradually over time as soon as possible – but was forced to admit that they may legally remain in place until March 31, according to the laws which came in last night.
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MPs have been recalled to the House of Commons today for crucial votes on the new lockdown laws, which force all non-essential shops and other facilities to close to stop the spread.
The vote – which is set to take place this evening – will comfortably pass. Labour is expected to back the new laws too.
Only after the rollout is underway and the most vulnerable have been protected, will he consider lifting measures – with only the promise that “things will be much better by the spring”.
Eagle-eyed MPs spotted in the legislation, released last night, that the new lockdown laws could last until March 31.
Boris stressed today that it did not mean the lockdown would definitely run in full until then, but would allow the draconian rules to be slowly rolled back.
He explained: “And as was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping.
“That is why the legislation this House will vote on later today runs until 31 March.
“Not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then, but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis.
“Carefully, brick-by-brick, as it were, breaking free of our confinement but without risking the hard-won gains that protections have given us.”
It will be the law to review the measures every two weeks – and there will be a legal obligation to remove them if they are no longer necessary.
We will use every second of lockdown to place this invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable
But MPs were quick to express their deep frustration with the fact it could go on for much longer than the PM said just two days ago – and demanded he commit to reducing them as soon as possible.
Boris told the Commons today that there was a “fundamental difference” in this lockdown because the hope of the vaccine rollout is on the horizon, which was “our means of escape.”
But with the news that one in 50 people now have Covid and that the new variant was up to 70 per cent more transmissible, he argued there was “no choice” but to return to a strict shutdown of the nation, with everyone staying home once again.
He vowed: “We will use every second of lockdown to place this invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable.”
It came as:
Sir Graham Brady, the Tory backbench boss, demanded another vote in February on extending the laws.
New Forest West MP Desmond Swayne accused the PM of “malice” with rules which dictate people’s everyday lives, saying the new lockdown was an “assault on liberty and livelihoods”.
Chris Grayling warned: “Many of us support the PM in what he is doing but are very concerned that this House will not have an opportunity to take a further view on these regulations until the end of March.”
He demanded another debate before February half term and the progress made so far, stressing Britain should not wait until the end of March if possible.
And Tory MP Jeremy Wright demanded a number for how many needed to be vaccinated before restrictions will be lifted – which Boris failed to answer.
He urged: “When a specific point has been reached in the vaccine priority groups and a consequent reduction in the risk of hospitalisations and deaths, that then the balance of risk between health on the one hand and livelihood and learning on the other will be significantly different and then restrictions can be lifted.”
However, despite the open ended shutdown, the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), which was formed to resist lockdown measures, is set to back the Government too.
One member told The Times: “There’s no choice this time.”
Boris said schools were his priority to get back up and running again when possible, adding: “Schools have been the very last thing to close and when we begin to move out of lockdown, I promise they will be the very first things to reopen.”
Ministers hope to get kids back to school after the February half-term break, but have refused to be drawn on any promises.
JAB THE NATION
The PM promised already that his vaccines strategy will deliver a way out of the lockdown, with a target of 13million of the most vulnerable Brits jabbed by the middle of February.
There are already almost 1,000 vaccines centres now up and running across the country – with 595 GP-led sites with 180 coming later this week. Hospitals are also dishing out the jab, and next week it will begin at sports stadiums and exhibition centres.
Covid vaccine deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi said this morning that the vaccine programme was a ‘Herculean’ effort.
He said the target to get almost 14 million people vaccinated by next month is a “stretching target” but he was confident it would be delivered.
And there will be a “massive acceleration” in numbers vaccinated in the coming days, he promised.
Meanwhile, Dr Susan Hopkins, deputy director of the national infections service at Public Health England (PHE), said coronavirus cases were still rising.
“This position is the most serious we’ve been in so far this pandemic,” she told BBC Breakfast.
Covid cases are continuing to rise across the nation – with 60,000 cases reported yesterday alone.
1.1.million people in the UK now have Covid – with 1.3million vaccinated.
Daily numbers for those who have had the jab will be revealed next week, Boris Johnson vowed last night.
Later today Gavin Williamson will give an update to MPs on school closures – and is expected to tell them kids will be graded on teacher predictions instead.
Schools are to be shut until at least half term, and perhaps even longer.
But the kids of key workers and vulnerable children can still go in.
Earlie today Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon described the situation with schools as “a mess”.
The Conservative MP told Sky News: “Clearly it has been a mess but we are where we are.
“But I think now we have to move on and make sure we have an exam system that is a level playing field for students and fair to the disadvantaged.”
He also demanded teachers be given the jab next, after vulnerable people have had it.