Boris Johnson has raised the prospect of even tougher lockdown measures, including school closures, being imposed in England in the coming weeks to stem surging Covid-19 rates.
Amid concerns over pressure on the NHS and the higher transmissibility of the new coronavirus variant, the prime minister revealed he was “fully reconciled” to potentially having to “do things in the next few weeks that will be tougher”.
He also acknowledged that the coronavirus curbs were “probably about to get tougher”.
Nearly eight in 10 people in England are already under “stay at home” tier 4 measures, which include the closure of non-essential shops and strict one-to-one outdoor meeting limits between households, but Johnson suggested stricter curbs could be introduced.
Asked whether it may be necessary to introduce tougher “tier 5” restrictions in the near future, Johnson told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr show on Sunday: “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 reconciled to that. My bet [is that] the people of this country are reconciled to that.”
Asked what “tougher” might mean, Johnson said: “Until the vaccine comes on stream in a massive way, we’re fighting this virus with the same set of tools.”
Pressed again on what it might mean and if, for example, it could include March-style restrictions or a curfew similar to that introduced in other countries in a new tier 5, Johnson replied: “You’ve spoken about tier 5, I haven’t said that but there are obviously a range of … tougher measures that we would have to consider.”
Asked what they would be, the prime minister said: “I’m not going to speculate now on what they might be but I’m sure all our viewers, or listeners, will understand … clearly, school closures, which we had to do in March, is one of those … things. It’s not something we necessarily want to do.”
Acknowledging that the situation was “very difficult”, Johnson added: “We’re entirely reconciled to doing what it takes to get the virus down and that may involve tougher measures … in the weeks ahead.”
“What we’re doing now is using the tiering system, which is a very tough system … and, alas, probably about to get tougher, to keep things under control. But, we’ll review it.”
He added: “And we have the prospect of vaccines coming down the track in their tens of millions … And that, I think, is something that should keep people going in what I predicted, back on your show in October, will be a very bumpy period right now. It is bumpy and it’s going to be bumpy.”
Despite warning of stricter measures on the horizon and in the face of pressure from education unions, Johnson separately urged parents to send their children into primary schools on Monday in areas of the country where they are still set to open.
Sir Mark Walport, who sits on Sage (scientific advisory group for emergencies) and was formerly the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, said it was “pretty clear” more restrictions would be needed to prevent transmission of the virus.
“It is going to be very very difficult to get under control without much tighter social distancing measures,” he told the Marr show.
Those measures could potentially include closing schools, he said, adding: “We know that transmission occurs within schools, we know that a person between 12 and 16 is seven times more likely than others in a household to bring the infection into a household and we know that there was a small dip in the amount of transmission in schoolchildren after the half-term, which then went up again when they went back.”
Minutes from the Sage meeting on 22 December showed the group feared that even with full lockdown and closure of all schools, it might not bring R below one in the presence of the new variant.