Sunday, 29 Nov 2020

British PM Johnson to face his critics after Covid-19 lockdown U-turn

LONDON (REUTERS) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Monday (Nov 2) defend his plan to impose a second lockdown on England in the face of criticism from opponents that he has been slow to act, and from some in his own party who say the measures go too far.

After castigating opponents’ calls last month for a new national lockdown to contain a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Johnson U-turned on Saturday, announcing that new restrictions across England will begin on Thursday and last until Dec 2.

The United Kingdom, which has the highest official Covid-19 death toll in Europe, is grappling with more than 20,000 new cases a day. Scientists have warned a worst-case scenario of 80,000 dead could be exceeded this winter.

“Models of our scientists suggest that unless we act now, we could see deaths over the winter that are twice as bad or more compared with the first wave (last spring),” Mr Johnson will say in Parliament, according to his office.

“Faced with these latest figures, there is no alternative but to take further action at a national level.”

Saturday’s announcement is subject to a vote on Wednesday, which will expose Mr Johnson to a rebellion from fellow Conservative Party lawmakers who reject the need for a national lockdown.

Some Conservatives fear the long-term economic damage caused by the lockdown will outweigh the health risks of allowing businesses to stay open, and that there are wider risks to mental health and an erosion of civil liberties from lockdowns.

“If these kinds of measures were being taken in any totalitarian country around the world we would be denouncing it as a form of evil,” Mr Graham Brady, who chairs an influential committee of Conservative lawmakers, told the BBC radio.

Britain has reported 46,717 Covid-19 deaths – defined as those dying within 28 days of a positive test. A broader measure of those with Covid-19 on their death certificates puts the toll at 58,925.

Essential shops, schools, and universities in England will remain open but pubs and restaurants will be shut, apart from takeaways. Outbound international travel is banned except for essential reasons including work, and non-essential retail will close.

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The opposition Labour Party has offered its support to the government, meaning there is little chance of Mr Johnson losing the parliamentary vote. But, after Mr Johnson rejected Labour’s call for a lockdown, their votes will come alongside heavy criticism.

“They failed to learn, they failed to listen, and they failed to lead,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a speech.

The rest of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have their own lockdown policies and enacted tougher health restrictions last month.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Sunday England’s lockdown could be extended beyond Dec 2 if necessary, but Mr Johnson will tell lawmakers that an extension is not the plan. Finance minister Rishi Sunak said he was hopeful the lockdown would end on schedule.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said on Monday that the tougher measures will automatically expire on Dec 2, and lawmakers will vote on what happens next.

“These regulations will automatically expire ahead of Wednesday Dec 2 and MPs will have a vote on the proposed way forward,” the spokesman told reporters.

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