Boris Johnson today desperately tried to win over furious Tory MPs as he defended his new national coronavirus lockdown and insisted he had ‘no choice’ but to impose tough new draconian curbs.
The Prime Minister told a recalled House of Commons this morning that his hand had been forced after a new variant of the disease was found to be spreading with ‘frightening ease’.
Mr Johnson said the Government’s vaccination programme meant almost one quarter of over-80s had already received jabs and England had vaccinated more people ‘than in the rest of Europe combined’.
He said an Office for National Statistics study which suggested one in 50 people are infected showed it is ‘inescapable that the facts are changing’ and the Government’s response had to follow suit.
The lockdown in England, which includes a strict stay at home message and the closure of all schools, is due to be reviewed in the middle of February but the regulations will actually last in law until the end of March.
Mr Johnson today resisted calls from Tory MPs to guarantee the rules will start to be eased after the first review on February 15, fuelling fears that the shutdown could last far longer than the initial seven week period.
Tory backbenchers slammed the PM’s ‘malicious’ lockdown and accused him of an ‘assault on liberty and livelihoods’ as they demanded an exit strategy.
The PM said he hoped measures will be able to be lifted in the spring but warned there will not be a ‘big bang’ out of lockdown, rather a ‘gradual unwrapping’.
Mr Johnson made clear that a successful roll-out of the vaccine programme will be key to determining when the lockdown measures can be lifted.
He said: ‘We have already vaccinated more people in this country than in the rest of Europe combined and we will give the House the maximum possible transparency about our acceleration of this effort, publishing daily updates online from Monday so that jab by jab honourable members can scrutinise the process being made every day.
‘Yet as we take this giant leap towards finally overcoming the virus and reclaiming our lives we have to contend with the new variant which is between 50 and 70 per cent more contagious.
‘The tiers the House agreed last month, was working with the old variant but alas, this mutation spreading with frightening ease and speed in spite of the sterling work of the British public, this mutation has led to more cases than we have seen ever before, numbers that alas cannot be explained away by the meteoric rise in testing.’
Mr Johnson said the ONS report published yesterday showing the extent of infections across the country as well as rising hospitalisations showed it was ‘inescapable that the facts are changing and we must change our response’.
He told MPs: ‘So we had no choice but to return to a national lockdown in England with similar measures being adopted by the devolved administrations so that we can control this new variant until we can take the most likely victims out of its path with vaccines.’
When Mr Johnson announced the lockdown on Monday night he said the measures would be reviewed in the middle of February.
But the regulations being voted on by MPs this afternoon are due to last in law until the end of March.
Mr Johnson tried to assuage Tory fears that the measures could still be in place in April but also insisted the nation must be ‘extremely cautious about the timetable ahead’.
He said: ‘As was the case last spring our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will not be a big bang but a gradual unwrapping.
‘That is why the legislation this House will vote on later today runs until March 31, not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis, carefully brick-by-brick, as it were, breaking free of our confinement but without risking the hard won gains that our protections have given us.’
Mr Johnson said schools will be the ‘very first things to reopen’ when lockdown measures can start to be eased.
Sir Keir Starmer said Labour will support the new lockdown as he warned the UK is facing ‘perhaps the darkest moment of the pandemic’.
But he said the situation is not the result of ‘bad luck’ and that it ‘follows a pattern’ as he accused the Government of failing to heed the warnings of experts and of repeatedly failing to act swiftly enough.
‘In the first wave of the pandemic the Government was repeatedly too slow to act and we ended 2020 with one of the highest death tolls in Europe and the worst-hit economy of major economies,’ he said.
‘In the early summer, a Government report called ‘Preparing for a challenging winter’ warned of the risk of a second wave, of the virus mutating and of the NHS being overwhelmed.
‘It set out the preparations the Government needed to take, I put that report to the Prime Minister at PMQs in July.
‘Throughout the autumn Track and Trace didn’t work. Sage advised a circuit-break in September but the Prime Minister delayed for weeks before acting.
‘We had a tiered system that didn’t work and then we had the debacle of the delayed decision to change the rules on mixing at Christmas.
‘The most recent advice about the situation we’re now in was given on December 22 but no action was taken for two weeks until Monday of this week.
‘These are the decisions that have led us to the position we’re now in – and the vaccine is now the only way out and we must all support the national effort to get it rolled out as quickly as possible.’
There is growing anger on the Tory backbenches over the Government’s handling of the pandemic.
Some senior Conservative MPs had joined the Opposition in calling for the introduction of another national lockdown.
But the idea of hardening the restrictions sparked fury from other Conservatives, who insisted the country’s experience of the pandemic shows that lockdowns do not work and are crippling the economy.
Tory MP Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of lockdown sceptics, has demanded a ‘substantial relaxation’ of the restrictions as soon as the four top priority groups have been vaccinated.
Writing in the Telegraph he said: ‘Achieving this crucial goal must now become the central, overriding focus of the Government.
‘We need to start seeing daily vaccination reports updating MPs and the public to ensure we are making the progress we need.’
He added: ‘Once these groups have been vaccinated, and have become immune to the disease, this should be a clear threshold for when a substantial relaxation in restrictions can begin.’
Tory colleague and fellow CRG member Steve Baker later tweeted that he agreed with Mr Harper, adding: ‘Once the most vulnerable have been vaccinated, draconian restrictions must be substantially removed.’
Many Conservative MPs are pushing the Government to spell out the exact circumstances in which the lockdown will be lifted.
Tory former minister Jeremy Wright told Mr Johnson in the Commons the Government needed to be ‘more definitive’ on when curbs could be eased.
A furious Sir Desmond Swayne blasted the restrictions, telling Mr Johnson: ‘Pubs can’t compete with supermarkets for off sales, even within a household you can’t play tennis or golf.
‘Notwithstanding the assault on liberty and livelihoods, why are these regulations pervaded by a pettifogging malice?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘Pettifogging, yes, malicious, no. I am going to have to take the hit here, the intention is to stop the virus, protect the NHS and to save lives.
‘To do that we have to engage in restricting transmission between human beings.’
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, said ‘many’ MPs are concerned at being asked to approve a lockdown which could last until the end of March.
Speaking in the Commons he said: ‘I welcome the Prime Minister’s assurance that this House will be consulted on the lifting of restrictions, should it be possible before the end of March, but can I say to him that many of us are concerned at being asked to approve a lockdown which could continue until March 31.
‘Can I ask (Mr Johnson) to reconsider and to offer the House a vote at the end of January and at the end of February as well, not on whether to lift restrictions, but on whether to continue them or not?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘I can’t believe it will be until the end of March that the House has to wait before having a new vote and a new discussion of the measures we have to take.’
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is facing a Cabinet split over his decision to close schools across England.
The Prime Minister initially sided with hawks led by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson who wanted classes to remain open.
But he switched to agree with doves including Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Michel Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, after being presented with new data showing the scale of the problem facing the nation, the Financial Times reported.
Mr Johnson’s statement to MPs came after the Government’s vaccines tsar today admitted that the NHS will need to be giving around three million vaccine doses a week by February to meet the PM’s target.
Nadhim Zahawi said the goal of covering more than 13million of the most vulnerable within seven weeks was ‘very stretching’ – but can be delivered.
There is a growing clamour today for the vaccination process to be ramped up – with concerns that local chemists and other facilities are not being used enough.
So far around 1.3 million people in the UK have been vaccinated with the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech jabs and Mr Zahawi said there will be a ‘massive acceleration’ in the coming days.
Challenged that the weekly figure would need to be more like three million than two million to hit the PM’s target, Mr Zahawi nodded and said: ‘You’re going to see that increase – the NHS have got a very clear plan.
‘We’ve got a fantastic team working, seven days a week, all hours to deliver this.
‘No doubt, it is a stretching target. But I think it’s one that we should absolutely look to deliver.’