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People may have woken up this morning with a sense of deja vu after Boris Johnson announced another national lockdown last night in a bid to curb spiralling Covid infection rates.
But while the prime minister warned that the weeks ahead “will be the hardest yet”, he insisted that the third shutdown was “the last phase of the struggle”, thanks to the country’s mass vaccination programme.
“With every jab that goes into our arms, we are tilting the odds against Covid and in favour of the British people,” Johnson said during a televised address.
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The PM has pledged that between 13 million and 14 million people will be vaccinated before the lockdown is lifted in mid-February.
Seven weeks from safety?
The decision to reintroduce the strongest possible restrictions followed “a frantic day of last-minute decision-making in Downing Street”, as questions were raised over “whether No. 10 should have introduced tougher measures sooner”, says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham.
Tory ministers and backbenchers - many of whom had voiced opposition to further lockdowns - were “apoplectic” at how the situation has been allowed to develop, Wickham continues. But that anger may be tempered if “ministers can meet their genuinely make-or-break commitment to vaccinate 13 million of the most vulnerable people”.
In a bid to regain the initiative, Downing Street sent Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove out to bat for the new lockdown this morning.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the government wanted a “vaccination centre on every high street”. And the PM has scheduled the lockdown to last for seven weeks “to allow the vaccination programme to be rolled out for 13 to 14 million people”, Gove added.
But anti-lockdown MPs might have been worried when Gove said he hoped his boss “is not overpromising”. As The Guardian notes, he “admitted it was unlikely all 14 million would receive the vaccine in time, while hinting that restrictions would remain in place until they did”.
While many of Johnson’s MPs are furious about the lockdown announcement, the PM does appear to have the public’s support - to some extent, at least. A snap Savanta/ComRes poll found that 79% of Brits back the shutdown.
However, 62% feel the government moved too slowly.
As The Atlantic’s Tom McTague writes, heading into a third lockdown at such short notice suggests that “once again, Britain is failing”.
“Johnson’s alibi now is that he did learn the lessons of the first wave - he just got unlucky,” continues McTague, who notes that the Tory leader has blamed the sudden nationwide spike in infections on the emergence of a new Covid strain.
Although “this is, at least to some degree, true”, Johnson “has proved consistently slower to take action to suppress the virus than other leaders measures”, indicating that the PM “has learned only some of the lessons from his failures in the first wave”, McTague argues.
Despite such accusations, government health officials are bullish about the newly launched vaccination rollout. One insider told Politico’s London Playbook that “the vaccine is the way out of this”, adding: “This is a massive national effort for the country to rally around.”
All the same, “the story of the next month is of two bleak battles against the clock”, says the news site’s Wickham.
In his 8pm address to the nation yesterday, Johnson said that the coming weeks would see a focus on vaccinating those most at risk, starting with care-home residents and staff, front-line health and social care workers, all over-70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable.
These 13 million-odd people will get their first jabs by mid-February, paving the way to an end to full lockdown and a return to the tier system, the PM insisted.
The lockdown announcement came as the UK’s chief medical officers warned that hospitals in several areas of the country were at risk of being overwhelmed over the coming few weeks.
Johnson has “now bet the house on vaccines to save the day”, The Atlantic’s McTague writes. And if he pulls it off, the PM will “deserve some credit for backing the vaccine effort early with serious government money”.
But even if the UK is seven weeks from safety, “it will not erase the failures of Britain’s pandemic response”, McTague adds.
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