COVID-19: Lockdown is more severe than previous two – and Tory MPs prepare to rebel
We should have known the news was going to be grim when the TV pictures of 10 Downing Street confirmed that the Christmas tree and wreath on the front door had gone.
Inside Number 10, the festive season was well and truly over and the prime minister – who has already been a pretty stingy Santa this Christmas – was preparing to be a 12th night Scrooge.
We can’t say we weren’t warned.
On TV on Sunday morning, Boris Johnson warned of “tougher” curbs.
And during a visit to a vaccination centre just hours before his broadcast, he warned of “tough, tough weeks ahead”.
He wasn’t wrong.
But when the PM made his grim announcement, the lockdown was much tougher and will last for more weeks than many had feared – probably until mid-February, he said.
Where he was wrong in his statements during the previous 36 hours was when he said there was “no doubt in my mind” that schools were safe.
Now there seems to be no doubt in the prime minister’s mind that schools – and universities – are not safe.
Education, from primary schools to universities, has been plunged into disarray after a series of government U-turns. Now, despite everything the PM has said about keeping them open being a “national priority”, they’re going to close.
Working parents will face a childcare crisis. Children’s education will suffer. Even government ministers acknowledge that. And there’s a class divide here, too.
There will be claims – legitimately – that working from home and looking after children is all very well for middle class white-collar professionals with the latest fancy laptops, but a different story for parents in low-paid jobs who can’t afford not to work and in many cases don’t have the necessary IT kit for home learning.
And universities will inevitably face demands for refunds from angry students and their parents.
The government also appears to be heading for another major exams fiasco this summer, by creating considerable confusion about whether GCSEs and other exams will go ahead.
This lockdown appears more severe than the previous two, in March and November, and will be much longer, lasting about six weeks.
But will it really only be that long? On this, the prime minister was woolly and vague.
The rules will be similar to the March lockdown. The messages are now familiar: work from home, don’t travel and so on.
But 10 months on, there will be more dismay this time at some of the government’s more questionable decisions.
Why should zoos have to close, many will wonder. Why should outdoor sports like golf and tennis be banned? Surely the experts tell us fresh air and exercise are good for us.
The Premier League and other so-called “elite sports” will continue, to the relief of football fans, despite the recent COVID-19 breach shame of some top football stars recently.
Some will question why top football can continue while church services face strict curbs and weddings are banned – apart from deathbed weddings, which given the ghastly infection figures is a horrible thing to contemplate.
The PM will make a statement to MPs when the Commons is recalled – for the second time during the Christmas recess – on Wednesday, followed by a debate and vote on the lockdown measures.
Of course, if the Government hadn’t extended the recess by a week – in what looked like a cynical move to avoid criticism from its own backbenchers – it wouldn’t have had to recall the House of Commons.
Now, very likely, the government’s backbench critics of lockdown measures will be even more furious on Wednesday.
This, for example, was the reaction of Tory former minister Sir Desmond Swayne to the prospect of tightening the curbs: “What more pain do they want to cause us? What are they going to stop us doing now?” he told the Telegraph.
“Close down essential shops and the takeaways? The whole thing is madness – it’s going beyond ridiculous.”
Expect to hear more of that in the coming days from Conservative MPs.
At the same time, Opposition MPs will back the lockdown and say it should have come sooner. Scientists will claim it is vital to minimise infections, serious illness and death.
In his broadcast, the PM said that “with a fair wind” and a successful roll-out of the vaccination programme, the curbs could end in mid-February. On the vaccines, Mr Johnson was very vague, too.
A fair wind? That didn’t sound very optimistic and there must be every chance that this lockdown will last beyond the middle of next month.
As Scrooge said: Bah! Humbug!
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