Boris Johnson says no end date for lockdown

Prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that the end of lockdown may be delayed beyond mid-February, telling MPs the government will be “extremely cautious” about lifting restrictions and reopening schools. His comments came as anti-lockdown backbenchers raised concern about lockdown regulations published last night which set a date of 31 March for them to remain in force. Announcing England’s third national lockdown on Monday, Mr Johnson said that the vaccination could progress fast enough to allow restrictions to be eased “by the middle of February, if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails”.

But he attempted to damp down expectations in a statement to the House of Commons today, stressing that the shutdown could continue beyond that point if coronavirus remains a threat. Mr Johnson told MPs that schools would be “the very first things to reopen” when the country moves out of lockdown, and said that this “may” happen when the planned half-term ends on 22 February. But he added:  “We should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead. 

“As was the case last week, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will not be a big bang but a  gradual unwrapping. 

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“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 breaking free of our confinement, but without risking the hard won gains that our protections have given us.”

Mr Johnson said that if vaccinations proceed as planned and people observe lockdown rules, there would be “substantial opportunities” for relaxation of restrictions at the review planned for 15 February, which he described as “an important moment”.  He promised that all restrictions will be subject to review every two weeks and told Tory former minister Chris Grayling that MPs would have an opportunity to debate the lockdown package again before the end of March.

But he came under attack from some Tory backbenchers, including former minister Sir Desmond Swayne, who said that the lockdown package, which shut down golf clubs as well as indoor gatherings, was “pervaded by pettifogging malice”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told MPs that the need for the current lockdown was “not just bad luck, it’s not inevitable, it follows a pattern”. The government had been “repeatedly too slow to act” and had failed to respond quickly enough to scientists’ warnings of the need to prepare for a second wave this winter, he said.

“We had a tiered system that didn’t work and then we had the debacle of the delayed decision to change the rules on mixing at Christmas,” Starmer told MPs. “The most recent advice about the situation we’re now in was given on 22 December but no action was taken for two weeks until Monday of this week. “These are the decisions that have led us to the position we’re now in – and the vaccine is now the only way out and we must all support the national effort to get it rolled out as quickly as possible.”

Sir Keir Starmer said it was “totally unforgivable” that millions of self-employed people have not received “any meaningful support” from the government during the pandemic. And he called for ministers to step up the supply of laptops to children to allow online learning while schools are closed, warning that up to 1.8 million don’t have access to a home computer and 900,000 live in households that rely on mobile internet connections. Mr Johnson insisted that 560,000 laptops and tablets had already been provided last year, with 100,000 more being delivered this week.

The prime minister said he had “no choice” but to plunge England into lockdown on Monday due to figures showing that the new variant of Covid-19 was driving up infections, with one in 50 now infected nationwide. 

He said: “We are in a tough final stretch made only tougher by the new variant, but this country will come together and the miracle of scientific endeavour, much of it right here in the UK, has given us not only the sight of the finish line, but a clear route to get there.

“After the marathon of last year, we are indeed now in a sprint – a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them and every needle in every arm makes a difference.”

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