Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that more of England could go under the top coronavirus restrictions, Tier 4, in effect forcing the whole country under a third national lockdown.
Prime Minister Johnson said on Sunday that the current tier system is “probably about to get tougher”, implying that measures may be ongoing until Spring, pending a widespread rollout of the government-approved Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines.
“It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that will be tougher in many parts of the country. I’m fully, fully reconciled to that,” Mr Johnson said on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One.
He also suggested that the country would readily submit to further restrictions, saying: “And I bet the people of this country are reconciled to that because, until the vaccine really comes on stream in a massive way, we’re fighting this virus with the same set of tools.”
Downing Street sources speaking to The Times reported on Monday that it was likely more of the country will go into Tier 4, with the accompanying closure of schools in the areas of the country with the highest infection rates.
Last Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that more areas of England would be put under the most stringent restrictions, putting three-quarters of the population under Tier 4. Nearly one-quarter of England are under Tier 3, and there are no longer any Tier 2 regions. Just 2,000 people — the population of the Isles of Scilly — are still under Tier 1.
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The Conservative government introduced a three-tiered system after the second national lockdown in the Autumn. Tier 4 made its debut a week before Christmas, preventing millions of Britons in the south-east of England from visiting their families over the festive period. Reports circulated afterwards that Tier 4 was just the start of an increasing number of tiers, with a fifth level allegedly on the horizon.
While The Times reports that the prime minister will be taking stock of England’s situation on Wednesday, sources speaking to the Daily Mail have said that an announcement on expanding Tier 4 could come as early as today, following the hosting of a government COVID-O committee. The Telegraph reports that the prime minister may also reintroduce shielding — telling older and vulnerable people to stay indoors.
The government had planned that it would subject another official national lockdown to a Parliamentary vote. Increasing the tiers system to any theoretical height — even above and beyond the conditions of previous universal lockdowns — could theoretically sidestep this process, however.
The new reports come as Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the government was prepared to change tiers “within 24 hours” if need be, later signalling on Sky News that the Johnson administration would not rule out a third national lockdown.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader who should be fulfilling his obligation as Opposition in challenging the government’s inclination towards more restrictions, has called for a full national lockdown without delay.
“The virus is clearly out of control. We can’t allow the Prime Minister to use up the next two or three weeks and then bring in a national lockdown which is inevitable.
“Do it now. That’s the necessary first step to get the virus back under control. Nationwide lockdown – the prime minister has hinted that that’s going to happen, but he’s delaying again,” Sir Keir said.
Conservative New Forest West MP Sir Desmond Swayne criticised the prospect of tighter restrictions, asking: “What more pain do they want to cause us? What are they going to stop us doing now? Close down essential shops and the takeaways?
“The whole thing is madness. It will be so ridiculous – what difference does it make if you are out in the fresh air for one hour or all day? It won’t make a blind bit of difference. It’s going beyond ridiculous.”
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