Blaming the new, faster-spreading variant, Boris Johnson last night announced a third national lockdown in England and a return to March 2020-style restrictions as Covid cases soared past the numbers seen during the first wave of the pandemic in April last year. The UK recorded on Monday the highest number of new Covid cases, 58,784, since the crisis began – the seventh day in a row with more than 50,000 daily cases. We are once again being told to stay at home except for a few “limited reasons” such as shopping for essentials, exercise, to get medical treatment and to escape domestic abuse. And this is set to be a long one. Downing Street has said the measures will be reviewed on February 15th with any changes to come into effect at the earliest from February 22nd – Michael Gove, meanwhile, told Sky News this morning that “some” restrictions could be lifted in March “but not necessarily all”.
But don’t worry, the Prime Minister has another plan to save the UK. Highlighting the key difference between this lockdown and the last ones, the vaccines, Johnson told those watching that he hopes to deploy a first dose to 12.2 million people by mid-February. He optimistically declared that “not only is the end in sight, but we know exactly how we will get there”. While supportive of the lockdown measures announced, Keir Starmer was slightly sceptical about the end date offered. The Labour leader cautioned: “I’m just pointing out that the Prime Minister has on a number of occasions indicated dates by which he thinks we will have returned to a degree of normality and that hasn’t happened.” Remember, in March last year Johnson told us we would “turn the tide” in 12 weeks.
Perhaps the most dramatic announcement from last night was the closure of all schools. Not because it doesn’t make sense, but because of the sheer speed at which the government has performed its latest volte-face. Just last month, the government threatened schools with legal action for closing and within the past 48 hours the Prime Minister was insisting schools were safe. Even at an all-staff meeting at the Department of Education yesterday morning, civil servants were told there were no plans to close schools, only for Johnson to announce at 8pm that all primary schools, secondary schools and colleges will shut. That is quite the U-turn. Teaching unions have, for weeks, been calling for a pause to reopening schools this term – warning of the impact to community transmission and the safety of staff. Last night proved they called it right, and all politicians would do well to put more trust in them as experts in their industries. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.