Boris Johnson said England’s schools may need to stay closed for longer than currently planned and warned tougher restrictions are probably on the way to combat the pandemic.
Virus cases are surpassing 50,000 a day, putting the government under pressure to intensify action as the nation returns to work after the Christmas holidays. The opposition Labour Party said the country should immediately return to a full lockdown, and unions on Monday called for employers to offer parents paid time off to cope with childcare.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, the Prime Minister didn’t elaborate on what kind of additional measures might be needed and rejected criticism that his government has been too slow to act as the more contagious form of the virus spreads rapidly across the country.
“It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that are tougher in many parts of the country,” Johnson said. “The UK is grappling with a new variant of the virus which is surging particularly in London and the southeast and that’s why we’ve had to take exceptional measures for some parts.”
On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested areas of the country in tier 3 on England’s 4-tier scale of virus restrictions face tighter rules.
“Some of the tier 3 areas are seeing sharp rises in cases,” he told Sky News. “This new variant is much easier to catch, it’s much more transmissible and we’re now seeing the effect of that in lots of different parts of the country. It means that whereas the old tier 3 was able to contain the old variant, that is proving increasingly difficult.”
While the virus is spreading faster, the UK is poised to give the first shots of a Covid-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford this week. It’s the second coronavirus injection to be authorized for emergency use in Britain, after one from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE received the go-ahead in early December.
Johnson’s administration has been trying to keep in-person classes in England going throughout the pandemic, and the prime minister sought to reassure parents that schools are safe and the virus poses little risk to young people.
“We’ve kept schools going for a long, long time in areas where the pandemic is in very high levels,” Johnson said. “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.”
Hancock told Times Radio on Monday “it’s right that we keep schools open where we can.”
The government’s statements contrast sharply with warnings coming from teachers’ unions, which have told members not to return to classrooms. In London, which has one of the country’s highest levels of Covid-19 infections per capita, the government has ordered all primary schools to remain closed for the start of the new term this week.
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, went further, calling on the government to impose a national lockdown within 24 hours.
The Trades Union Congress, an umbrella organization representing more than 5 million workers, said Monday that companies should offer parents furlough while their children are home from school. The government has subsidized wages since March to prevent idled employees from losing their jobs.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has been forced to backtrack on efforts to reopen the economy, especially as the virus’s winter resurgence pushes public health services to the brink. Most recently, Johnson was forced to reverse plans that would have relaxed social-distancing rules over Christmas.
When asked about the UK’s plans for mass vaccinations, Johnson didn’t offer any detail about how the country would be able to deliver 2 million shots a week.
“Everybody’s working flat out to do this,” he said. “We do hope that we will be able to do tens of millions in the course of the next three months.”
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asked for the parliament in Edinburgh to be recalled on Monday so she can lay out extra measures to curb rising infections. At the moment, schools there are due to return for face-to-face teaching on Jan. 18 after a prolonged Christmas break.
Daily Covid-19 cases have been rising to records and Sturgeon has said the country faces its most critical weeks since the pandemic began. The new strain counts for four in 10 new infections, a University of Edinburgh public health expert told the BBC.
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