The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has announced a full lockdown in England until at least the middle of February, with a return to the “stay at home” message from the first national lockdown in March and broadly the same restrictions, except that childcare bubbles and support bubbles for those living alone will remain in place.
It means the whole of the UK is now effectively in a deep lockdown until at least the beginning of February. Scotland brought the “stay at home” requirement into law at midnight this morning, and Northern Ireland’s executive is set to follow suit (both administrations have already had reasonably strict restrictions in place since Boxing Day). Wales’s stay-at-home restrictions, meanwhile, dating from 20 December, will remain in place. Schools, too, are to be shut except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers until at least the end of the February half term in England, until mid-February in Scotland, for at least the next fortnight in Wales, and an “extended period of remote learning” in Northern Ireland is expected to be announced later today.
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Morning Call readers will recognise the vital necessity of these restrictions while, in many cases, dreading the weeks to come. I also expect that readers will be under no illusions about a prime minister who waited until the number of coronavirus patients in hospital in England was 40 per cent higher than at the peak of the first wave to take this inescapable decision. Nor, I am sure, will it be lost on you that barely seven hours before he announced the school closures, Boris Johnson was insisting live on television that “schools are safe” while many children in England returned to school after the Christmas holidays.
But Tony Blair said something at the weekend that I think is worth repeating: “This is a moment for constructive suggestions for how we reach the end point we all want, faster.” The lockdown will be incredibly tough for many people in very many ways, and I am not convinced that it would be very illuminating or helpful this morning to focus on the missteps that got us here.
So, in that spirit, this is clearly the time to think about ways to make the next few months less painful and to bring about the end of the pandemic faster. That involves sensible, ambitious journalism, political discussion and engagement with experts about the vaccine rollout, and whatever is required to make that happen more effectively, whether it be through cutting red tape for returning retired medics, promoting volunteering opportunities, exploring opportunities for pharmacists or the military to provide support, or unexplored routes for expanding manufacturing. It also means that the case is stronger than ever for providing generous statutory sick pay to those required to self-isolate with the virus, the need to supply over a million children without computers at home with laptops is ever more urgent, and the £4.6bn support package for business announced by Rishi Sunak is welcome, but there are serious gaps in support that still need to be plugged.
The imperative to journalists, experts, the opposition and MPs in the governing party is clear: this is the time to be creative and constructive, not for the sake of Johnson’s feelings, but the quicker resolution of this chapter in our history. This is the most serious the coronavirus pandemic has been at any point since March. But, unlike in March, the end is in sight.