Boris Johnson has warned the public that the easing of England’s third national lockdown will be a “gradual unwrapping” and not a “big bang”.
The prime minister told MPs that the government will use “every available second” of another shutdown to place an “invisible shield” around elderly and vulnerable people through the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks.
Follow live updates as PM gives COVID statement
Declaring that the UK was now engaged in a “sprint” to inoculate the vulnerable before coronavirus can reach them, he urged the public to “give our army of vaccinators the biggest head start we possibly can”.
Mr Johnson said the emergence of multiple vaccines has given the UK “not only the sight of the finish line, but a clear route to get there”.
But in order to “win this race for our population”, the PM said people “must once again stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”.
Justifying his decision to order a third national shutdown, Mr Johnson said the emergence of a new variant of the virus first identified in the UK had caused a drastic change in circumstances.
He said the variant was “spreading with frightening ease and speed in spite of the sterling work of the British public”, leaving him with “no choice” but to implement another lockdown in England.
“This mutation has led to more cases than we’ve seen ever before. Numbers that alas cannot be explained away by the meteoric rise in testing,” the PM told MPs.
“When the ONS reports that more than 2% of the population is now infected and when the number of patients in hospitals in England is now 40% higher than the first peak in April it is inescapable that the facts are changing and we must change our response.”
The Commons will vote on England’s third national lockdown later on Wednesday.
The shutdown has already come into force, with the Commons recalled from its Christmas recess to debate and retrospectively vote on the coronavirus restrictions.
Labour is backing the lockdown, meaning there is no prospect of a government defeat.
“The situation we face is clearly very serious, perhaps the darkest moment of the pandemic,” leader Sir Keir Starmer said.
“We will support them [the restrictions], we will vote for them and urge everybody to comply with the new rules – stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.”
But he said the imposition of another lockdown was “not just bad luck” or “inevitable” but the latest in a “pattern” of the government acting too late.
“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,” Sir Keir said.
The regulations enforcing the lockdown, which were published on Tuesday, allow it to be in place until the end of March.
Referencing this, Mr Johnson said the country’s “emergence from the lockdown cocoon will not be a big bang but a gradual unwrapping”.
He added that the lockdown regulations run until 31 March “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”.
The PM said this would be done “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”.
Although victory for the PM is assured, a number of Tory MPs could rebel or abstain to show their unhappiness at the prospect of another prolonged shutdown.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives, said “many” in the party were concerned at being asked to back a lockdown that could last until the end of March.
And Conservative former minister Sir Desmond Swayne, a critic of the lockdown plans, told the Commons: “Notwithstanding the assault on liberty and livelihoods, why are these regulations pervaded by a pettifogging malice?”
Pettifogging is defined in the Cambridge Online Dictionary as “rules or details (that) are too small and not important enough to give attention to”.
Mr Johnson announced the lockdown in a televised address to the nation on Monday, telling the public that the new variant first identified in the UK was spreading at a “frustrating and alarming” rate.
And he said hospitals were “under more pressure from COVID than at any time since the start of the pandemic” last year.
In a bid to offer people some hope for the future, Mr Johnson said vaccinating the almost 14 million people in the top four priority groups would allow the government to begin considering easing restrictions.
Addressing the Commons on Wednesday, the PM said the average age for COVID deaths is over 80 and it was “significant” that more than 650,000 people in this age group had already been given a jab.
“Within two to three weeks, almost one-in-four of the most vulnerable groups will all have a significant degree of immunity,” he said.
The PM said there were now almost 1,000 vaccination centres across the country, adding this included “595 GP-led sites, with a further 180 opening later this week, and 107 hospital sites – with another 100 later this week”.
He added: “Next week we will also have seven vaccination centres opening in places such as sports stadia and exhibition centres.”
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