A mixture of approval, recrimination and continuing concern about London’s poorest people and damage to the city’s economy have greeted Boris Johnson’s announcement of new and severe lockdown measures against Covid-19 across the whole of England, to last at least until the middle of February.
In a televised address broadcast from 8:00 this evening, the Prime Minister claimed that a previous “national effort” and less stringent restrictions that have been in place since the easing of the first lockdown in early July “were working and would have continued to work” but for the emergence of the variant of the coronavirus, which spreads more quickly and easily.
Warning that the weeks ahead will be the “hardest yet”, Johnson renewed the instruction first made in March that people should stay at home except for essential shopping and for unavoidable work or medical reasons, for exercise or to escape domestic violence, and said also that all schools and colleges must switch to remote learning from tomorrow except for vulnerable children and those of key workers. The position will be reviewed at half term. Nurseries will remain open.
Johnson expressed his hope that, by contrast with last year, “we’re now rolling out the biggest vaccination programme in our history” at an accelerating pace and that by the middle of February, “if things go well, and with a fair wind in our sails” people in the four highest priority groups will have their first vaccinations. This would “eventually” enable many of the restrictions to be lifted, he said.
But in a statement Sadiq Khan described the announcement only as “inevitable”, adding that to him it is “unclear why it took Boris Johnson so long to reach this conclusion”. He urged the government to take “every step possible to rapidly accelerate the vaccine programme” and said it is “crucial that greater financial support is provided to businesses, the self-employed and those self-isolating”, which he called “still woefully insufficient”.
London Councils chair Georgia Gould said it is “heartbreaking that we are once again facing a national lockdown” but that the decision is “absolutely right”. She warned, though, that it “will hit disadvantaged families, children, clinically vulnerable people and local businesses hardest of all” and stressed, “we will also be clear with national government and others that more resources will be needed to deliver vital local services and support businesses struggling to survive.”
Concern for the business community was expressed by London First chief executive Jasmine Whitbread, who said, “Businesses across the country will be wondering how they are going to survive into the spring,” while Richard Burge, her counterpart at the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry, highlighted new survey results “showing that 2021 has started with business confidence at its lowest point since the financial crash in 2008.”
Burge and Whitbread’s London First colleague John Dickie were among twelve signatures to a letter sent to Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak today, seeking an extension to VAT and Business Rate relief periods, along with more grant support and targeted help.
Green Party mayoral candidate Siân Berry said, “Once again low-income families risk losing out most from government delays,” and argued that a switch to a Universal Basic Income system “is needed now more than ever.”
There has been criticism from non-Conservative boroughs, with Gareth Roberts, Liberal Democrat leader of Richmond, saying that although Johnson’s move was “undoubtedly” right it is “as usual, coming too late and only serves to bring into sharper focus the Government’s consistent mishandling of the response to the Covid19 crisis.”
Roberts is among a number of critics to point to the government’s recent changes of mind over the reopening of schools, with Dan Thorpe, the Labour leader of Greenwich, taking to Twitter to observe that it is three weeks since education secretary Gavin Williamson threatened him and Islington leader Richard Watts with legal action to prevent them boroughs’ schools closing early “in the face of rising infection”.
There was, though, an endorsement of the PM’s “national effort” message from Ravi Govindia, the Conservative leader of Wandsworth, who echoed his message that ‘we will all get through this together.”
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