Sunday shows: Covid tiers “probably about to get tougher”, says Johnson

Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday has not yet returned after the festive break, but Andrew Marr did return to our screens this morning. An interview with the Prime Minister took up most of the programme, and there were no Labour representatives on his show – but shadow minister Wes Streeting appeared on Times Radio.

The Andrew Marr Show

Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded that the Covid tier system of restrictions is “probably about to get tougher” in the coming weeks, possibly with the introduction of a new Tier 5, and could not guarantee that all schools would open on January 18th as planned.

  • Asked whether parents of primary school children should send them to school tomorrow for the start of term: “Yes, absolutely they should in the areas where schools are open.”
  • On safety in schools: “Schools are safe – very, very important to stress that. The threat to young people, to kids is really very, very small indeed as the scientists continue the tests. Risk to staff is very small.”
  • On SAGE advice on December 22nd that schools may need to close: “The evidence is not clear… We need to see whether those extra steps that we’ve all taken in Tier 4 areas are going to work in driving the virus down.”
  • Asked whether, if they do not work, schools would have to close: “We’ve got to keep things under constant review, but we will be driven not by any political considerations but entirely by the public health question.”
  • Asked whether the government will take legal action against councils that close primary schools: “We’ll work very hard with authorities across the country to get our message across that we think schools are safe.”
  • Put to Johnson that local councils have taken matters into their own hands on schools: “I don’t think that’s the case but obviously we’re going to work with local authorities, work with schools and those responsible.”
  • He added: “For public health reasons, we think in the large majority of the country it is sensible to continue to keep schools open – primary schools – as you know, secondary schools are coming back a bit later.”
  • On testing in schools: “We now have tens, hundreds of millions of lateral flow tests, which I believe and hope can be used, deployed, particularly in secondary schools to assist the return of schools.”
  • Asked for his message to councils recommending school closures: “They should be guided by the public health advice, which is at the moment that schools are safe in those areas where we’re not being driven by the new variant to close them.”
  • Asked whether he can “guarantee” schools will reopen on the 18th: “We’re going to continue to assess the impact of the Tier 4 measures, the Tier 3 measures… We think, in principle, it’s a good thing to keep schools open if we can.”
  • On whether the government could introduce a Tier 5: “It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that will be tougher. I’m fully, fully reconciled to that.”
  • On specific measures that could be introduced: “There are obviously a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider. I’m not going to speculate now about what they would be.”
  • He added: “Clearly, schools closures, which we had to do in March, is one of those things – it’s not something we necessarily want to do.”
  • Asked how many AstraZeneca vaccines are “ready to go in the arm”: “I believe that tomorrow the 540 or so GP vaccinations, 101 or so hospital sites, there will be 530,000 AZ, Oxford-AstraZeneca, vaccines.”
  • On the Pfizer vaccine approved for use earlier last month: “There are a few millions more of Pfizer still to be used. I don’t want to go into the figures. We are rolling them out as fast as we can.”
  • He added: “We do hope that we will have – that we will be able to do tens of millions in the course of the next three months. I can certainly give you that figure.”
  • Asked whether he had now read the government report from July (that he previously admitted he had not read), which warned that a new strain of the virus could emerge, Johnson did not answer the question.
  • Highlighted that he had rejected for seven weeks calls from SAGE for a circuit-breaker lockdown, to lower the risk of mutation predicted by the report, by halting community transmission: “This is absolute nonsense.”
  • Put to him that his government has not been ‘following the science’: “Scientific advisers have said all sorts of different things at different times, and they are by no means unanimous.”
  • He added: “The government could have closed down the UK economy… However, the damage to people’s mental health, the damage to the long-term prospects of young people growing up in this country, the exacerbation of the gap between rich and poor, that would have been colossal.”
  • On lockdowns: “All they do is buy you some temporary respite. What we’re doing now is using the tiering system, which is a very tough system – and alas probably about to get tougher – to keep things under control.”
  • On a fresh Scottish independence referendum: “Referendums in my experience… are not particularly jolly events, they don’t have a notably unifying force in the national mood, they should be only once in a generation.”
  • Asked about the difference between Brexit and Scottish independence: “The difference is we had a referendum in 1975, we then had another one in 2016. That seems to be about the right sort of gap. How about that?”
  • On additional red tape for exporters as a result of his Brexit deal: “The tragic reality of business life is that there is some bureaucracy. We’re trying to remove it, but we have a massive opportunity to expand our horizons and think globally.”
  • On higher tariffs being imposed in case of dispute over competition rules: “There is a clause that says that either side can take action if they feel that the other side is unfairly undercutting them… That’s a potentially rather valuable thing for us.”
  • Asked whether he plans to continue as Prime Minister after Brexit: “Yes.”

Times Radio

Shadow schools minister Wes Streeting was grilled by Gloria de Piero on whether Labour has changed its position on delaying the reopening of schools since trade unions have called for a postponement. (Keir Starmer said in August children should be back at school in September, “no ifs, no buts”, and Labour last month rejected the National Education Union plan to delay secondary schools reopenings until January 18th. Streeting gave no firm answers but said Starmer would say more later today.

  • On whether Gavin Williamson should resign: “I don’t think Gavin Williamson’s position is particularly tenable. I doubt me calling for him to resign now is going to make any difference… I do think any teacher will tell you he’s the worst Education Secretary in living memory. I never thought I’d see the day when teachers would think Michael Gove would be an improvement on this Education Secretary but here we are.”
  • On whether pupils should sit exams later this year: “It’s looking increasingly challenging.”
  • On whether teachers have the right to refuse to go into work on Monday: “I think they’re covered by employment law like everyone else.” He said the education unions have been “forced into this position”, adding: “Their backs are up against the wall.”
  • Pressed on school closures: “The advice from SAGE is now very, very clear, I think, which is that the government has lost control of the virus and unless there are bigger restrictions in place that job is going to be harder not easier to solve. The question for the government today is, why aren’t they following the scientific advice?”
  • Pressed further on schools: “Many schools tomorrow are closing. I suspect many more will follow… You’ll be hearing from my leader Keir Starmer on this later today.”
  • Pressed again on whether teachers should go into work: “There will be different circumstances in different schools in different parts of the country. Ultimately they’ve got to make the right choice for them.”
  • On whether it would be safer if all schools in Tier 4 were closed: “In some ways, that would be the easy answer, really.” He said the “harder question” is over access to high-quality remote learning, the concerns raised by the children’s commissioner and how to reopen schools.
  • He concluded that Keir Starmer will say more later as the Labour leader “has been engaged very heavily on this particular issue over the weekend”.

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