Prime Minister Boris Johnson put England on notice that the national virus lockdown will continue for at least another six weeks, with schools staying closed and new border quarantine rules coming into force.
A day after the British death toll passed 100,000, Johnson said the government will review the impact of pandemic measures and the effectiveness of the vaccine program in mid-February.
But the soonest restrictions could begin to be eased and schools fully reopened is March 8, he said, and some rules will be tightened.
In an attempt to stop dangerous mutant strains of the virus entering the U.K., new 10-day hotel quarantine measures will be imposed on all passengers arriving from hot spot regions such as South America, South Africa and Portugal.
“Everyone yearns to know how much longer we must endure these restrictions, with all their consequences for jobs, livelihoods and most tragically of all, the life chances of our children,” Johnson told members of Parliament on Wednesday. “We will not persist for a day longer than is necessary, but nor can we relax too soon.”
Johnson rejected a call from Tory colleague Steve Brine to consider opening some schools before March 8. “This is about as fast as we think we can prudently go,” the prime minister told Parliament. While the lockdown appears to have curbed the spread of infections, “we do not yet have enough data to know exactly how soon it will be safe to reopen our society and economy,” he said.
The U.K. is three weeks into its third national lockdown since the pandemic began almost a year ago, with tens of millions of workers ordered to stay home and retail and hospitality businesses shuttered. Since then, the government has committed almost 300 billion pounds to emergency support for the economy.
Despite the lockdowns and stimulus measures, the U.K. has suffered the fifth-highest death toll in the world and the heaviest economic hit of any Group of Seven country.
In recent weeks, Johnson’s administration has focused on driving ahead with a mass vaccination program that aims to provide shots to the 15 million most vulnerable people and carers by Feb. 15. Once that goal has been achieved, ministers will consider if and how restrictions can safely begin to be eased.
“We remain in a perilous situation,” Johnson said. The spread of a more contagious and potentially more deadly new strain of the virus, first found in southeast England, has set back the government’s ambitions for reopening the economy in the spring, he said.
Other strains have been identified in Brazil and South Africa and ministers have been debating border measures including quarantining all arrivals in hotels. In the end, Johnson announced a more limited policy aimed at arrivals from specific countries thought to be most at risk of carrying a new variant of the disease.
“In order to reduce the risk posed by U.K. nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in government-provided accommodation such as hotels for 10 days, without exception,” the prime minister told the House of Commons. “They will be met at the airport and transported directly into quarantine.”
Extra police will also be stationed at ports and airports to stop Britons leaving the U.K. to go on holiday or for any other non-essential reason, Home Secretary Priti Patel said. “Anyone who does not have a valid reason for travel will be directed to return home,” she told Parliament.
Johnson, who has been criticized for being slow to take action throughout the pandemic, said the government will review the lockdown and vaccine roll-out in mid-February and aims to publish a plan for easing the restrictions in the week of Feb. 22.
“We have one of the highest death rates in the world,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party. “The truth is this was not inevitable, it wasn’t just bad luck. It’s the result of a huge number of mistakes by the prime minister during the course of this pandemic.”