Covid-19: Prime Minister announces third national lockdown with schools to close
The Prime Minister has announced a third national lockdown, with schools closing to most pupils with immediate effect.
Boris Johnson said the strict measures - expected to last until mid-February - were required to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by the rising tide of Covid-19 infections.
In a televised address to the nation on Monday night, he told the nation to stay indoors other than for limited exceptions, such as shopping for essentials or seeking healthcare.
After significant pressure from unions, teachers and some politicians, he agreed that primary and secondary schools and colleges should move to remote teaching until after February half-term, except for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.
Exams will be cancelled this year, he confirmed, due to the disruption to schools.
And students will not be allowed to return to universities.
Meanwhile, the clinically vulnerable who were previously told to shield were told to do so once more by only leaving home for medical appointments and exercise.
Mr Johnson said the new variant of the virus was 50 to 70 per cent more transmissible and spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” manner.
“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” he said.
His statement came after the UK’s chief medical officers for the first time raised the country’s Covid alert level to 5 - the highest level - indicating that the NHS could be overwhelmed within 21 days “in several areas” without further action.
The new restrictions mean:
- People must stay at home except for limited reasons permitted in law, such as shopping for necessities including food and medicine, travelling to work if you cannot work from home, seeking medical help including getting a Covid-19 test, providing assistance to a vulnerable person or fleeing a threat or harm such as domestic abuse
- Everyone should work from home unless it is impossible to do so, such as critical workers and those in the construction industry
- Those who shielded before should do so again and are advised not to go to work even if they cannot work from home.
- Exercise will be permitted with household or support bubble members or with one other person from another household, but is advised to be limited to only once per day and carried out locally.
- Non-essential shops - already closed in Tier 4 areas like Cambridgeshire - will shut nationwide
- Restaurants and other hospitality venues can continue delivery or takeaway services but will no longer be permitted to serve alcohol
- Outdoor gyms, tennis courts and golf courses must close and outdoor team sports will be prohibited
- Early years settings such as nurseries and childminders will be allowed to remain open and existing childcare bubbles can stay in place
- Premier League football and other elite sports with testing regimes and bubbles in place will be allowed to continue.
- Cleaners and other trades people will still be able to work in people’s homes.
- On international travel, only essential journeys are permitted
- Playgrounds will remain open.
The Prime Minister said he was hopeful that “if things go well”, the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine will have been administered by mid-February to everyone in the four top priority groups. This includes care home residents and carers, everyone over the age of 70, all frontline health and social care workers and everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable.
“That will eventually enable us to lift many of the restrictions we have endured for so long,” he said.
This covers 13 million people, who will benefit from protection against the virus from about two to three weeks after getting the first of their two doses.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that parents may reasonably ask why the decision to close schools had been taken after many primary schools returned today. He said the government had wanted to do everything it could to keep schools open.
The new regulations are expected to be laid before Parliament on Tuesday, with MPs retrospectively being given a vote after they are recalled early from the Christmas break on Wednesday.
Mr Johnson briefed his Cabinet on the measures on Monday evening and also spoke to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Cambridge’s Labour MP Daniel Zeichner said he supported the measures, but argued that the government was to blame for the worsening situation.
He said: “We are at another critical moment in our fight against coronavirus, so I back these tougher restrictions.
“But I am angry that the government has lost control of the virus and that this means there is so much pressure on our NHS and that schools are closing again.
“Now we need urgent support for families without computer and internet access, alongside a plan to retain and recover jobs. Most importantly we must speed up vaccinations.
“Amazing scientists from AstraZenica helped create a vaccine in record time.
“So my message to the government is this. I know that Cambridge people will stay at home to protect our NHS but Boris Johnson, you need to do your bit too.
“Slow and incompetent simply will not do on vaccination. For the sake of our city and the country, get a grip.”
The new lockdown was announced on the day that the first doses of the Oxford University / AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine were administered.
In Cambridgeshire, the county council said schools would remain closed to all pupils on Tuesday (January 5) to give “headteachers and their staff time to prepare to reopen from Wednesday (January 6) for vulnerable children and children of key workers only”.
Reacting to the news on Twitter, Coleridge Community College said: “There will be many questions following tonight’s announcement from the PM.
“We will use tomorrow’s planned town hall meeting with the headteacher to try and address your questions and concerns, as best we can. Please make sure you submit these (to email@example.com) so that we can support you and your child(ren).
“We particularly think of our Year 11 students tonight and will look at what this means for them in the meeting, and speak directly to them in a remote assembly when term begins on Wednesday.
“Please be assured that we remain committed to continuing to provide the best possible education and care for our community. Even if we are working remotely, we are still Coleridge.”
Business leaders said the new restrictions were necessary - but so was government support for the economy.
Tony Danker, CBI director-general, said: “It is absolutely essential that we all put the health of our citizens first, and businesses will continue to step up in the national interest to support the NHS, employees and customers in the weeks ahead.
“In tandem we need to acknowledge that the economic impact of these new restrictions is significant.
“There are now a number of imperatives for government to support business.
“First, ensuring firms have the cashflow to make it through. Extending existing support has helped, but a broader range of measures will need to tackle this further hit to revenues.
“Second, the government must review and plug any coverage gaps from existing support that are now further exposed, for example in supply chains.
“And third, firms must have a clear line of sight and assurance that support will be there for as long as restrictions are in place so that they can stay the course rather than act precipitously.
“Meanwhile, British business stands ready to play its full part in the vaccine roll-out, increasing mass rapid testing and acting flexibly to support employees with caring responsibilities, while being attentive to the mental health of millions of employees."