Boris Johnson Braces England For Long Haul Lockdown After Surge in Virus Deaths

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Boris Johnson prepared the ground for lockdown rules to last for several more months as U.K. coronavirus deaths hit the highest daily total since April.

Speaking in Parliament before a vote approving the measures, the prime minister said pandemic restrictions will be lifted only gradually. While schools will be the priority for reopening, the goal of a return to face-to-face teaching from Feb. 22 is far from certain, he warned.

“As was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping,” Johnson said. The House of Commons voted by 524 to 16 in support of the new restrictions Wednesday evening.

The government tried to temper expectations for a swift end to the pandemic curbs -- despite a mass vaccination program -- as infections and hospitalizations continued to soar and pile pressure on the struggling National Health Service. Hospitals in London are less than two weeks from being overwhelmed by the virus even in a best-case scenario, the Health Service Journal reported, citing an NHS England presentation.

Boris Johnson Braces England For Long Haul Lockdown After Surge in Virus Deaths

The U.K. reported 1,041 new coronavirus deaths within 28 days of a positive test on Wednesday, the highest daily increase since April. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there are now 30,074 patients with the virus in U.K. hospitals.

The rising caseload forced authorities to impose the U.K.’s third nationwide lockdown this week, closing schools and putting the economy on course for a potentially devastating double-dip recession.

Exams Scrapped

While millions of children are being taught online at home until at least mid-February, ministers confirmed A-level and GCSE exams scheduled for May and June will also be canceled this year due to the pandemic. Instead pupils will be graded by their teachers.

School Exams Axed and Replaced With Teacher Marks in England

The government aims to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible so hospitals are not overwhelmed, buying time for medics to vaccinate almost 14 million of the most vulnerable people and carers by Feb. 15. Some 1.3 million have already received a dose.

“After the marathon of last year we are indeed now in a sprint, a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them,” Johnson said.

Hancock faced questions from his own Conservative colleagues in Parliament over the pace of the vaccine rollout and how quickly lockdown rules will be lifted. He agreed the U.K. needs urgently to increase its supply of the approved vaccines and said manufacturers Pfizer and AstraZeneca are working as hard as possible to deliver.

Hancock vowed to remove “unnecessary red tape” for those volunteering to give vaccines and said he wants to see pharmacists and former doctors coming forward. There are almost 1,000 vaccination sites standing ready across the country, according to the government.

U.K. Reports 1,041 New Virus Deaths, Most Since April

Johnson faces a looming showdown with his own party in February when the national lockdown is planned to end. Mark Harper, a former cabinet minister, said there should be no reason to continue with restrictions once the most vulnerable people have been vaccinated.

Hancock urged caution, saying the government needs to see the “impact” of the vaccinations on the pandemic, and to “break the link” between cases and deaths before the rules can be eased.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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