Boris Johnson saw off his Tory critics tonight as MPs voted the latest strict lockdown measures into law.
The Prime Minister saw off a small rebellion by backbenchers who accused him of launching an ‘assault on liberty and livelihoods’ as they warned lockdown will inevitably cause some people to ‘break’.
But with Labour vowing to back the Government, the result was always a foregone conclusion and the new regulations were passed by 524 votes to 16, a majority of 508.
Twelve Tories voted against the Government, including Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, and former ministers Esther McVey and Desmond Swayne.
Mr Johnson had earlier warned there will not be a ‘big bang’ release from the latest national lockdown next month.
The Prime Minister’s national shutdown, which includes a strict stay at home message and the closure of schools, is due to be reviewed in the middle of February but the laws underpinning it are not due to expire until the end of March.
Mr Johnson said he hopes the rules can start to be lifted in the spring but he has failed to give a firm commitment, fuelling Tory fears that the restrictions could be in place far longer than the initial seven weeks.
Mr Johnson stressed that when rules are eased there will be a ‘gradual unwrapping’ of lockdown rather than an immediate end as he dashed hopes of a swift return to normal life.
Police today got tough on Covid lawbreakers, with 28 protesters arrested for flouting restrictions, four men fined £800 for travelling in the same car on their way to McDonald’s and officers even stopping motorists to ask ‘why are you here?’
There was fury also aimed at Education Secretary Gavin Williamson today as he confirmed that GCSE and A-level exams in the summer will be replaced by teacher-assessed grades.
MPs, unions and parents hit out after he made the announcement but failed to explain how the system would work and ensure that results given to pupils were fair – after with teaching time badly hit by closures.
Britain today breached 1,000 daily coronavirus deaths for the first time since April and declared another record-high number of cases with 62,322 more positive tests.
Department of Health data shows today’s grim figure of 1,041 laboratory-confirmed deaths — only the 10th time the UK has topped the grisly milestone — is UK’s highest daily count since April 21. And experts fear the death toll will continue to spiral in line with soaring cases over the past three weeks because fatalities lag behind infections by several weeks because of how long it takes for patients to become severely ill.
Statistics also show it is the third day in a row that Britain has posted a record-high number of cases, following on from the 60,916 announced yesterday and the 58,784 the day before. The figure is also 24.6 per cent up on last Wednesday’s count of 50,023.
The shocking figures underline the seriousness of the situation Britain finds itself in and come after Boris Johnson desperately tried to win over furious Tory MPs as he defended his new national coronavirus lockdown and insisted he had ‘no choice’ but to impose tough new draconian curbs.
In another day of coronavirus anger and despair:
- Britain’s COVID crackdown began as pictures showed masked cops handcuffing pensioners and protesters ‘breaking lockdown rules’, with police officers stopping cars to quiz drivers;
- Former prime minister Tony Blair said the UK needs to dramatically accelerate its Covid vaccination scheme in order to lift lockdown rules in the spring, saying it was ‘not complicated’ to ramp-up the programme;
- Matt Hancock said teachers have a ‘very strong case’ to be next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine, as the Health Secretary told MPs ministers are currently considering the rest of the priority order;
- A GP on the frontline of Britain’s coronavirus vaccine push revealed doctors have still not received doses that were supposed to arrive last month, amid fears Boris Johnson has over-promised with his pledge;
- Europe’s drug regulator approved Moderna’s Covid vaccine and will get supplies from next week thanks to a deal it struck in summer last year — but Britain will miss out and won’t get any until the spring;
- The World Health Organization refused to give its blessing to Britain’s controversial plan to space the two doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine by more than a month;
- Boris Johnson was accused of leaving a ‘substantial gap in the nation’s defences’ against coronavirus by delaying rules on people needing a negative test before entering the UK;
- Gavin Williamson was under pressure to explain how teachers will be able to accurately grade GCSEs and A-levels for pupils after the 2021 exams were cancelled due to Covid;
- Politicians and experts blasted China for refusing entry to members of a World Health Organization(WHO) team being sent to the country to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic;
- Doctors may have to decide which severely ill patients to treat based on a ‘lottery’ if the NHS is overwhelmed this winter under draft Covid rationing plans;
- The organiser of Clap for Carers is calling for a return to the weekly round of applause during England’s third national lockdown – starting from 8pm tomorrow.
Mr Johnson had earlier warned there will not be a ‘big bang’ release from the latest national lockdown next month
Above are the locations of the seven mass vaccination centres that will begin operating from next week. They were revealed today by the Prime Minister
The Prime Minister earlier told a recalled House of Commons that his hand had been forced after a new variant of the disease was found to be spreading with ‘frightening ease’.
Mr Johnson said No10’s mass inoculation programme meant nearly one quarter of over-80s had already received jabs and England had vaccinated more people ‘than in the rest of Europe combined’. He said data suggested one in 50 people are infected showed it is ‘inescapable that the facts are changing’ and the Government’s response had to follow suit.
The PM resisted calls from Tory MPs to guarantee the rules will start to be eased after the first review on February 15, fuelling fears the shutdown may last far longer than the initial seven-week period. Tory backbenchers slammed the PM’s ‘malicious’ lockdown and accused him of an ‘assault on liberty and livelihoods’ as they demanded an exit strategy.
The PM said he hoped measures will be able to be lifted in the spring but warned there will not be a ‘big bang’ out of lockdown, rather a ‘gradual unwrapping’.
A furious Sir Desmond Swayne blasted the restrictions, telling Mr Johnson: ‘Pubs can’t compete with supermarkets for off sales, even within a household you can’t play tennis or golf.
‘Notwithstanding the assault on liberty and livelihoods, why are these regulations pervaded by a pettifogging malice?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘Pettifogging, yes, malicious, no. I am going to have to take the hit here, the intention is to stop the virus, protect the NHS and to save lives.
‘To do that we have to engage in restricting transmission between human beings.’
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, said ‘many’ MPs are concerned at being asked to approve a lockdown
which could last until the end of March.
Speaking in the Commons he said: ‘I welcome the Prime Minister’s assurance that this House will be consulted on the lifting of restrictions, should it be possible before the end of March, but can I say to him that many of us are concerned at being asked to approve a lockdown which could continue until March 31.
‘Can I ask (Mr Johnson) to reconsider and to offer the House a vote at the end of January and at the end of February as well, not on whether to lift restrictions, but on whether to continue them or not?’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock ducked demands to give a firm end point for lockdown as he suggested that even if the vaccine rollout happens by mid-February, curbs might have to stay if deaths do not fall.
The Health Secretary came under fire from his own side as he kicked off the debate on the regulations underpinning the brutal squeeze – which has already come into effect.
Mr Hancock faced repeated calls to give guarantees about the length of the restrictions, after it emerged they will not expire until March 31 despite Mr Johnson vowing to get more than 13million vulnerable Britons vaccinated by the middle of next month.
As Mr Hancock opened the debate on the lockdown, Sir Graham intervened to say: ‘Approving these regulations today would allow for lockdown for three months until the end of March.’
Sir Graham said the PM had assured him he did not expect MPs to have to ‘wait that long’ for an opportunity to decide whether or not to end the regulations.
Sir Graham added: ‘Will he go further and give a commitment to a further vote at the end of January and end of February, so this House will have control over what is happening?’
But while he insisted the Government does not ‘expect’ the blanket restrictions to last for three months, the Cabinet minister refused to say they will definitely be lifted at that stage.
He also hedged when he was challenged by Mark Harper, head of the CRG group of lockdown-sceptic Conservatives, that there could be no ‘possible reason’ for maintaining lockdown after the four most vulnerable categories of people are vaccinated.
‘We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths,’ Mr Hancock said.
‘We will need to see those numbers of – we will need to see the protection in reality, in lived reality on the ground, but we will watch this like a hawk and my aim is to keep these restrictions in place not a moment longer than they’re necessary.’
Conservative chairman of the Education Committee Robert Halfon (above) demanded assurance that the standard of grades would be maintained. He said it was vital there was a ‘level playing field for disadvantaged children’ and a fair appeals process.
Charlotte Rose assists one of her children, who is being home schooled in Milton Keynes today
The 25 per cent of deaths caused by Covid-19 (shown graph right) is the highest proportion so far during the second wave, and it means that the total number of people to have died in that week is significantly higher than at the same time in previous years (graph left)
The Met Police detained 21 protesters at an anti-lockdown rally in Parliament Square this afternoon, while a further seven people were hauled away from a demonstration outside Julian Assange’s bail hearing and now face fines of up to £6,400.
In Northampton, a group of friends were pulled over at 5am and slapped with a £800 penalty notice for being in the same car despite being from different households – breaching lockdown rules that came into force at midnight.
Meanwhile, Thames Valley Police has apologised for the behaviour of an officer who they said was ‘a bit keen’ in handing out leaflets asking drivers to explain why they were out and about as part of a crackdown on travel during lockdown in wealthy Maidenhead.
The Met Police rolled out some of the toughest anti-Covid measures today, announcing that anyone caught not wearing a face mask in a shop or on public transport would be fined £200. However, the penalties will not be given on the spot and people will be allowed a short time frame with which to produce a doctor’s letter.
Mr Williamson was under pressure tonight to explain how teachers will be able to accurately grade GCSEs and A-levels for pupils after the 2021 exams were cancelled due to Covid.
Pupils have not been able to sit mock exams because of the lockdown and last year’s closures mean they have had only a single term of in-person teaching in classrooms in the current academic year.
Last month, Mr Williamson gave an ‘absolutely’ cast-iron guarantee that exams in England would not be cancelled this academic year, after the shambled that surrounded grades last summer.
Conservative chairman of the Education Committee Robert Halfon demanded assurance that the standard of grades would be maintained.
He said it was vital there was a ‘level playing field for disadvantaged children’ and a fair appeals process.
He added: ‘Will he make sure that there are independent assessors, perhaps retired teachers or Ofsted inspectors, to provide a check and balance for each assessed grade awarded?
‘Will he do everything possible to ensure teachers and support staff are given priority for vaccinations alongside NHS workers so we can get our schools open again sooner rather than later?’
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said there could be no ‘ repeat of the shambles of last summer’.
‘The Education Secretary’s vague statement does not take us a great deal further forward other than to set out the broad parameters for the exam regulator Ofqual to work out a detailed plan,’ he said.
‘It is frustrating that there is not an off-the-shelf Plan B ready to go. We have repeatedly called on the Government and the regulator to prepare such a plan in the event of exams being cancelled, and have repeatedly offered to work with them in doing so.
‘However, ministers have been so busy insisting that exams will take place that they have failed to ensure that there is a contingency system which can be immediately rolled out. This is, frankly, a dereliction of duty.’