LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday that tighter lockdown restrictions are likely on the way as COVID-19 cases continue to rise but schools are safe and children should continue to attend where they are allowed.
COVID-19 cases in the UK are at record levels and the surge in numbers is fueled by a new and more transmissible variant of the virus. The government has canceled plans to reopen schools in and around London, but teaching unions want major closings.
Much of England is already facing the toughest restrictions under a four-tier system of regional regulations designed to stop the virus from spreading and protect the national health system.
However, a BBC interview raised concerns that the system may not be sufficient to keep the virus under control, and Johnson said the restrictions “may be tougher.”
“There are obviously a number of tougher measures we would have to consider … I’m not going to speculate now about what they would be,” he said.
Labor opposition leader Keir Starmer said Johnson must hold a national lockdown within the next 24 hours.
“We learned that the longer you delay making tough decisions, the worse it is in health, the worse it is in economic terms,” Starmer told reporters.
Johnson sets guidelines for England, with rules in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales being set by their local authorities.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon said her cabinet would meet on Monday to discuss possible further steps to limit the spread of the virus and ordered the Scottish Parliament to be called back.
The UK recorded 54,990 new cases of the virus on Sunday and recorded more than 75,000 deaths from the pandemic.
The government’s response has been heavily criticized. However, vaccine rollout is set to accelerate Monday as the first 530,000 doses of Oxford / AstraZeneca’s newly approved vaccines are ready for administration, Johnson said.
He hoped “tens of millions” would be treated in the next three months.
Millions of students will be returning from their Christmas break on Monday, and Johnson advised parents to send their children to school in areas where the rules allow.
“I have no doubt that schools are safe and that education is a priority,” he said.
Some local authorities and unions have warned against the reopening of schools and threatened to crack down on government advice. Others say closings also have a major negative impact on students.
“We need to renew and maintain consensus that children’s schooling should be kept to an absolute minimum,” wrote Amanda Spielman, high school inspector, in the Sunday Telegraph.