Boris Johnson: UK in final 'sprint' to defeat coronavirus

6 January 2021, 12:48

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Britain is in a final "sprint" to vaccinate the vulnerable before they can be infected with coronavirus, Boris Johnson has said.

Addressing the Commons, the prime minister told MPs people must stay at home during England's third national lockdown to give those administering the Covid-19 vaccine a "head start" over the virus.

Mr Johnson said tougher restrictions were necessary to combat the new variant first seen in the UK and that there was now "no choice" but to put England back into a nationwide lockdown.

"The Tiers, that the House agreed last month, were working with the old variant, but alas this mutation - spreading with frightening ease and speed in spite of the sterling work of the British public - this mutation has led to more cases than we've seen ever before," the prime minister said.

He added: "And so we have no choice but to return to a national lockdown in England with similar measures being adopted by the devolved administrations, so we can control this new variant until we can take the most likely victims out of its path with vaccines."

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Mr Johnson told MPs England's emergence from the "cocoon" of national restrictions will be "a gradual unwrapping" rather than "a big bang".

"That is why the legislation this House will vote on later today runs until 31 March," he added.

"Not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then, but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis - carefully, brick by brick, as it were, breaking free of our confinement but without risking the hard won gains that our protections have given us."

The UK leader also said the country is in a "sprint" to vaccinate the most vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them.

"We are in a tough final stretch made only tougher by the new variant," he said.

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"But this country will come together and the miracle of scientific endeavour, much of it right here in the UK, has given us not only the sight of the finish line but a clear route to get there.

"After the marathon of last year, we are indeed now in a sprint - a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them and every needle in every arm makes a difference."

He continued: "As I say, we're already vaccinating faster than every comparable country and that rate, I hope, will only increase.

"But if we're going to win this race for our population, we have to give our army of vaccinators the biggest head start we can possibly can.

"And that is why to do that we must once again stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives."

Responding to the PM, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party will support the new restrictions and urged people to comply with them.

He told MPs: "The situation we face is clearly very serious, perhaps the darkest moment of the pandemic.

"The virus is out of control, over a million people in England now have Covid, the number of hospital admissions is rising, tragically so are the numbers of people dying. And it's only the early days of January and the NHS is under huge strain. In those circumstances, tougher restrictions are necessary.

"We will support them, we will vote for them and urge everybody to comply with the new rules - stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives."

However, he also accused the government of being "repeatedly too slow to act" during the pandemic which, he said, explained why the UK ended 2020 with one of the highest death tolls in Europe and the worst-hit economy of major economies.

He said: "In the early summer, a government report called 'Preparing for a challenging winter' warned of the risk of a second wave, of the virus mutating and of the NHS being overwhelmed. It set out the preparations the government needed to take, I put that report to the prime minister at PMQs in July.

"Throughout the autumn Track and Trace didn't work. Sage advised a circuit-break in September but the prime minister delayed for weeks before acting.

"We had a tiered system that didn't work and then we had the debacle of the delayed decision to change the rules on mixing at Christmas.

"The most recent advice about the situation we're now in was given on 22 December but no action was taken for two weeks until Monday of this week.

"These are the decisions that have led us to the position we're now in - and the vaccine is now the only way out and we must all support the national effort to get it rolled out as quickly as possible."

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