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Coronavirus: Battle with disease could be over as early as the spring, Boris Johnson claims

PM says vaccines, treatments and faster testing will provide way out of pandemic

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 02 November 2020 19:27 GMT
Boris Johnson says coronavirus battle could be over by spring 2021.mp4
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Britain’s battle with coronavirus could be over as early as the spring, Boris Johnson has claimed, as he fought to keep restive Tory MPs behind his plan for a four-week second lockdown in England.

Mr Johnson told the House of Commons there was “no alternative” to the package of tightened restrictions which he announced on Saturday, citing scientific advice that without action, there could be twice as many deaths over the winter as in the first wave of Covid-19 in the spring.

Data suggested that hospitals could be overwhelmed within weeks, even in areas like the southwest of England where cases are currently low, he warned MPs.

But the PM faced a hostile reception from Tory critics including Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chair of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, who warned the country was drifting into “an authoritarian and coercive state” because of the lockdown, which will close pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops and require people to work from home if possible.

And Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the PM had shown a “catastrophic failure of leadership” in resisting calls from his scientific advisers in September for a “circuit-breaker” shutdown which might have prevented the past few weeks’ surge in coronavirus cases.

Both Starmer and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey confirmed that their parties will support the new restrictions in a Commons vote on Wednesday, removing the threat of the PM’s plans being blocked by a revolt of libertarian Tories.

And Sir Charles said he expected only 15 backbenchers to oppose the government, meaning Mr Johnson may not have to rely on opposition votes to get the lockdown through.

Outlining his plans to the House of Commons, the prime minister said the new restrictions, coming into effect at a minute past midnight on Thursday, will end automatically on 2 December. MPs will be given a vote before that date on a return to a tiered regional system, if it remains necessary.

Mr Johnson made clear he was placing his hopes for an end to the crisis in the introduction of mass testing of millions of Britons, along with the potential development of vaccines and improved treatments.

He said that the army would be involved within the next few weeks in the roll-out of millions of rapid-turnaround tests, which would help reduce the crucial reproduction rate of the disease – known as R – below one by the time the new restrictions expire on 2 December.

The tests, capable of delivering a result within 10-20 minutes, had been shown to suppress the virus in hospitals, schools and universities, he said.

Mr Johnson told MPs: “While scientists are bleak in their predictions over the short term, they are unanimously optimistic about the medium and the long term.

“If the House asks me ‘What is the exit strategy, what is the way out?’ – let me be as clear as I can: the way out is to get the R down now, to beat this autumn surge and to use this moment to exploit the medical and technical advances we’re making to keep it low.”

Newbury MP Laura Farris asked the PM for “assurances that the new tools that are at his disposal - particularly the 15-minute tests - will be sufficiently ubiquitous and effective in the coming weeks to avoid any future national lockdown after November”.

Mr Johnson replied: “That is certainly the intention and that’s why we are massively ramping up the tests.”

The prime minister also flagged the importance of dexamethasone as a treatment for coronavirus.

And he said: “We have the real prospect of a vaccine in the first quarter of next year.”

He went on: “I believe these technical developments taken together will enable us to defeat the virus by the spring, as humanity has defeated every other infectious disease. And I’m not alone in this optimism.

“But I cannot pretend the way ahead is easy without painful choices for us all, and so for the next four weeks I must again ask the people of this country to come together, to protect the NHS and to save many thousands of lives.”

Starmer accuses Johnson of ‘catastrophic failure of leadership’ over rejection of earlier national lockdown

Sir Keir Starmer told MPs that the prime minister had spurned the opportunity to implement a shorter two-week circuit-breaker lockdown as advised by his scientific advisers in September.

“At every stage, the prime minister has been too slow, behind the curve, at every stage he has pushed away challenge, ignored advice and put what he hoped would happen ahead of what is happening,” said the Labour leader. 

“At every stage he has over-promised and under-delivered. Rejecting the advice of his own scientists for 40 days was a catastrophic failure of leadership and of judgment. The prime minister now needs to explain to the British people why he failed to act and to listen for so long.”

Sir Keir called on the PM to use the four-week shutdown to fix the test and trace system and to provide further support for 1 million people who have lost their jobs. 

Tory backbencher Philip Davies accused the PM of pursuing a “failed” lockdown policy and asked how many failed businesses were a “price worth paying”.

And Sir Charles Walker told MPs: “The people of this country will never ever forgive the political class for criminalising parents seeing children and children seeing parents."

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said that Mr Johnson’s plan amounted to “an announcement of defeat”.

“We’ve surrendered our freedoms, we’ve surrendered our economy, we’ve driven people to despair with daily doses of doom-laden data,” said Mr Wilson, urging the prime minister to commit not to impose a third lockdown if this one does not work. 

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