Johnson Basks in a Rare Burst of Good U.K. News
Johnson Basks in a Rare Burst of Good U.K. News
LONDON — Buoyed by promising results for a British-led coronavirus vaccine and signs of a slowdown in the infection rate, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday laid out a plan to lift England’s nationwide lockdown next week. But he warned of strict regional restrictions that would last until next spring.
Mr. Johnson’s “winter plan” is designed to give his exhausted country hope for better times ahead while preparing it for several more months of mostly shuttered pubs and restaurants, and limitations on social gatherings.
“We have turned a corner, and the escape route is in sight,” Mr. Johnson declared to the House of Commons via video from 10 Downing Street, where he was still isolating after being exposed to a Conservative lawmaker who tested positive for the virus. But he added, “the hard truth is we’re not there yet.”
Under the new plans, England will return to a system under which the country is divided into three tiers of restrictions, though the government has yet to announce which regions will be under the different sets of curbs.
When the current lockdown expires on Dec. 2, gyms, stores and hairdressers nationwide will be allowed reopen and worship services, weddings and outdoor sports can resume. But in the worst affected areas of the country, pubs and restaurants will stay closed except for takeout service.
Even in some of the less badly afflicted areas, people will be able to drink in pubs only if they are also eating a meal. And while the pubs that remain open will be allowed to do so until 11 p.m. — an hour later than was the case before the recent lockdown began — last orders for alcohol will be taken at 10 p.m.
For Mr. Johnson, whose popularity has suffered because of his government’s erratic handling of the pandemic, the announcement was yet another chance to regain his footing. The package balanced his need to prevent another upsurge in the virus with a desire to avoid antagonizing 70 of his Conservative backbench lawmakers who have threatened to rebel over lockdown measures.
Mr. Johnson clearly hopes that his critics will be mollified by the prospect of an effective vaccine. But some lawmakers fear that the continuing curbs could devastate the hospitality industry, and on Monday expressed reservations.
“We have to be convinced that these government interventions — which will have such a huge impact on people’s lives, their health and their businesses — are going to save more lives than they cost,” said Mark Harper, who heads a group of Conservative lawmakers who have questioned the need for stringent lockdown measures.
Mr. Johnson expressed optimism about the vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, noting that it “has the makings of a wonderful British scientific achievement.” He said the government had ordered 100 million doses and 350 million vaccine doses overall, including two American-led vaccines.
The Oxford vaccine’s developers said on Monday that data from late-stage clinical trials showed that it was 70.4 percent effective in preventing Covid-19, with the rate going up to 90 percent, depending on the dosage regime. The vaccine is also far less costly than the American varieties and, unlike them, does not require special handling, making it well suited for use in less developed countries.
“This is an incredibly exciting moment for human health,” said Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group. He expressed particular excitement at data from a subgroup of the clinical trials that showed the vaccine was 90 percent effective when injected with a half dose, followed by a full dose.
Despite his inclination to bask in good news, Mr. Johnson was relatively restrained about the vaccine, noting that it would be several months before it was widely available. He spoke more about plans to introduce rapid-response tests, which he said would give people the confidence to move around the country.
Britain reported 15,450 new coronavirus cases on Monday, a decline of 27.7 percent from last Monday, which suggests that the three-week lockdown had succeeded in curbing the spread of the virus somewhat. The rate of people admitted to hospitals has also begun to moderate. But the death rate continued to rise, with 206 deaths reported on Tuesday, bringing the total to 55,230.
Much of the debate in Britain has turned on the question of whether restrictions would be lifted in time for people to celebrate Christmas with their extended families. The government has held out hope for a temporary easing of the restrictions, followed by more rigorous restrictions early in 2021. But public health experts warned that a holiday exemption would sow problems later.
“It’s a bad idea to ease measures too much before Christmas,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “We will pay for Christmas gatherings with January hospitalizations and February deaths.”
Dr. Sridhar described the Oxford vaccine as a “major advance and strong tool that puts a nail in the coffin of the ‘Just let everybody get it now’ people.” But she warned that it was not a “silver bullet” and should not be used as an excuse to ease restrictions now. If anything, she said, it should fortify people to stick with the rules a little longer.
Mr. Johnson could use a shot of good news. His personal ratings have plunged after a succession of policy reversals, though those of his party have remained relatively healthy, giving him hope for a political recovery.
The prime minister’s allies are worried about the sense of chaos that has descended on the government in recent weeks. He was rocked by the abrupt departure of his most influential aide, Dominic Cummings.
And Mr. Johnson’s efforts to set a new course were buffeted last week by the findings of an inquiry into allegations of bullying behavior by the home secretary, Priti Patel. Ms. Patel remains on the job despite the report’s conclusion that she broke the official code under which ministers serve.
“The possibility of rolling out the vaccine soon is good news politically, as it presents a path out of the repeated cycles of lockdown,” said Roger Awan-Scully, a professor of political science and chairman of the Political Studies Association of the U.K. “But it is unambiguously clear that Johnson’s personal ratings have taken a big dive in the last few months.”
“If the sense of drift and shambles from No. 10 Downing Street continues,” Mr. Awan-Scully added, “there will be a section of the party that is fairly willing to stab him in the back.”