Coronavirus restrictions in England are “alas probably about to get tougher,” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday, as the country battles to rein in a deadly surge in coronavirus infections.
In an interview on the BBC’s “The Andrew Marr Show,” Johnson was pressed over whether the restrictions currently in place in the worst-hit areas of England were doing enough, as hospitals fill up with Covid-19 patients.
“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 reconciled with that,” Johnson said. “I bet the people of this country are reconciled to that,” he added.
Pressed to elaborate what those tougher restrictions might be, Johnson said: “There are obviously a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider. I don’t want to speculate, I’m not going to speculate now about what they would be.
“Clearly, school closures that we had to do in March is one of those things (…),” he added, as the controversy over the government’s mixed messages over schools reopening continues to dominate the headlines.
Echoing his warning on the same program in October last year, Johnson warned: “It is bumpy, and it’s going to be bumpy.”
But the Prime Minister insisted that by the spring the situation across the country should be improving as more people are vaccinated.
Under the current system, most of England falls under the toughest Tier 3 and Tier 4 restrictions – with the latter in place for all of London – with a strict stay-at-home message.
But some scientists have warned that stricter measures are needed if a new, more infectious variant of the virus, which has spread in recent weeks across London, southeast England and parts of Wales in particular, is to be brought under control.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, called Sunday for a nationwide lockdown to be imposed within the next 24 hours, saying the country “can’t afford” further delay.
“The virus is clearly out of control and there’s no good the Prime Minister hinting that further restrictions are coming into place in a week or two or three. That delay has been the source of so many problems,” Starmer told reporters. “So I say, bring in those restrictions now, national restrictions within the next 24 hours – that has to be the first step to controlling the virus.”
Health workers are preparing to reactivate seven emergency Covid-19 field hospitals across England as regular hospital wards come under increasing strain.
Some London hospitals are now almost two-thirds full with Covid-19 patients, President of the Royal College of Physicians Andrew Goddard said Saturday.
Both primary and secondary schools across London and some other parts of southeast England will remain closed for at least the next two weeks for in-person learning, except for vulnerable pupils and children of critical workers. The return of secondary school pupils has been delayed across England, with students to be taught remotely rather than in classrooms.
Starmer said it was “inevitable” that more schools would have to close and urged the government to have a plan in place to ensure children’s learning and help working parents manage homeschooling. However, school closures should be the last resort, he said.
The UK has now registered more than 50,000 new Covid-19 cases for six days in a row, with 54,990 new confirmed cases reported on Sunday. On Saturday, it recorded its highest daily rise in coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic, with 57,725 new coronavirus cases.
The UK also reported 454 new deaths Sunday within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test. The country has been among the hardest hit in Europe, with more than 2.6 million infections in total and more than 75,000 deaths.
Mass vaccination hopes
The UK government is pinning its hopes for a return to some kind of normality on a speedy rollout of vaccinations, prioritizing the elderly and those who are clinically vulnerable, as well as health and social care workers.
Asked about the number of doses available of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, which was approved by UK regulators on Wednesday, Johnson told Marr that 530,000 doses would be ready to be given from Monday, on top of “the million or so” Pfizer/BioNTechCovid-19 vaccine already distributed.
However, he was unable to say how many doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were ready to be administered.
“We do hope that we will be able to do tens of millions [of Covid-19 vaccines] in the next three months, I can certainly give you that figure,” the Prime Minister said.
Johnson said this strategy relied on using three vaccines, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines – both of which were approved in the UK last month – and the Moderna vaccine, which would be ready to use “soon.”
Recalling what he said on the same program last October, Johnson said: “I thought by the spring things would be better. I stick to that.”
Earlier on Sunday, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted that the country had administered 1 million Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine doses, saying “the end is in sight.”
Batches of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine have begun arriving at hospitals ready for their use from Monday.
The vaccine is cheaper and easier to distribute than the Pfizer/BioNTech jab because it can be kept at regular refrigerator temperatures for at least six months. Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines must be stored frozen.
New variant threat
First Minister for Scotland Nicola Sturgeon tweeted Sunday that her Cabinet would meet the next day to “consider further action to limit spread” of the more contagious variant that has driven up infection rates in England – and that she would recall Parliament to hear its decision.
“We, like other countries, are in a race between this faster spreading strain of Covid and the vaccination programme,” she said.
“All decisions just now are tough, with tough impacts. Vaccines give us way out, but this new strain makes the period between now (and) then the most dangerous since start of pandemic. So the responsibility of government must be to act quickly (and) decisively in the national interest,” she said.
Johnson pushed back against a suggestion by Marr that his government had failed to prepare fully for the challenges of winter and the possibility of a mutation in the coronavirus, despite having been warned of the threats in a government-commissioned paper in July.
“This government has taken every possible step that we reasonably could to prepare this country for the consequences of winter,” Johnson said. “What we could not have foreseen, I think, reasonably, was the arrival of a new variant of the virus, which was spreading between 50 and 70% faster. Once we did understand that on, I think, December 18… we took decisive action.”
As of January 1, at least 30 countries, including the United States, had reported cases of the more infectious variant of the coronavirus first detected in the UK.
There’s no evidence that the variant is any more deadly or causes more severe disease, according to health officials.