There's no alternative to lockdown, Boris Johnson tells MPs

By Peter Walker Political correspondent

Boris Johnson has sought to persuade mutinous Conservative backbenchers to support his plan for a new coronavirus lockdown across England, saying that failing to act now would risk the “medical and moral disaster” of an overwhelmed NHS.

Addressing the Commons about his plans for a four-week shutdown starting on Thursday, the prime minister also rejected the idea he had been too slow to act, saying it had been right to first try a regional system of different tiers of restrictions.

But in response, Keir Starmer accused Johnson of consistently being “too slow and behind the curve” in his decisions on Covid, which amounted to a significant failure of leadership.

While Labour has pledged to back the new measures in the Commons, all but guaranteeing they will pass, a number of Conservatives have expressed opposition to the planned closure of hospitality businesses and most retail, among other temporary rules.

But Johnson said scientific predictions about the “remorseless advance of this second wave” meant the lockdown was inevitable.

“Faced with these latest figures, there is no alternative but to take further action, at a national level,” he told MPs. “I believe it was right to try every possible option to get this virus under control at a local level, with strong local action and strong local leadership.

“And I reject any suggestion that we are somehow slower in taking measures than our European friends and partners.”

Directly addressing the Tory malcontents, Johnson said: “To those in this house who believe we should resist further national measures, let me spell out the medical and moral disaster we face.”

This would he said, lead the the “disaster” of the NHS being overwhelmed, affecting not just coronavirus patients, but those with other ailments and needs.

He said: “The sick would be turned away because there was no room in hospitals. That sacred principle of care for anyone who needs it, whoever they are, and wherever, whenever they need it, could be broken for the first time in our lives.

“Doctors and nurses could be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would live and who would die.”

In response, some MPs said they would vote against the measures on Wednesday. Charles Walker, the senior backbencher who represents Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, said a negative vote was his only way of dissenting “as we drift further in to an authoritarian, coercive state”.

Another senior backbencher, Bernard Jenkin, said he would back “the bitter medicine” from the prime minister, saying: “Nobody has put forward a viable, immediate alternative that would avoid the overwhelming of the NHS.”

Jenkin asked Johnson to commission a white paper to set out a “plan for living with coronavirus”, and called for a revamp of the test-and-trace system, including a new boss to replace Dido Harding.

Johnson also sought to reassure his critics, saying support for self-employed people would be doubled from 40% to 80% of trading profits. This was, he said, not “the full-scale lockdown of March and April”, and he guaranteed parliament a vote on what happens next when the regulations expire on 2 December.

Quick guide Show Hide

New national restrictions are due to come into effect in England on Thursday, after MPs vote on them, and remain in place at least until 2 December.

  • For childcare or education, where it is not provided online.
  • To go to work unless it can be done from home.
  • Outdoor exercise either with household members or with one person from another household.
  • For all medical reasons and appointments.
  • To escape injury or harm, such as domestic abuse.
  • To provide care for vulnerable people or volunteer.
  • To shop for food and essentials.
  • To see people in your support bubble.
  • Children will still be able to move between homes if their parents are separated.

Government say the list is not exhaustive, and other permitted reasons for leaving home may be set out later. People could face fines from police for leaving their home without a legally permitted excuse.

No, not unless they are part of an “exclusive” support bubble, which allows a single-person household to meet and socialise with another household.

Parents are allowed to form a childcare bubble with another household for the purposes of informal childcare, where the child is 13 or under.

People are allowed to meet one person from another household socially and for exercise in outdoor public spaces, which does not include private gardens.

Up to 30 people will still be allowed to attend funerals, while stone settings and ash scatterings can continue with up to 15 guests.

Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies are not permitted except in “exceptional circumstances”. Places of worship must remain closed except for voluntary services, individual prayer and other exempt activities.

Most outbound international travel will be banned. There is no exemption for staying away from home for a holiday. This means people cannot travel internationally or within the UK, unless for work, education or other legally permitted exemptions.

Everything except essential shops and education settings, which include nurseries, schools and universities, will close.

Entertainment venues will also have to close. Pubs, restaurants and indoor and outdoor leisure facilities will have to close their doors once more.

However, takeaway and delivery services will still be allowed, while construction and manufacturing will stay open.

Parents will still be able to access registered childcare and other childcare activities where reasonably necessary to enable parents to work. Some youth services may be able to continue, such as one-to-one youth work, but most youth clubs will need to close their doors.

Public services, such as jobcentres, courts, and civil registration offices will remain open.

There is no exemption for grassroots organised team sports. Elite sports will be allowed to continue behind closed doors as currently, including Premier League football matches.

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But Starmer – who had advocated a two-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown coinciding with the just-ended half term – said the delay meant the measures would need to be longer and tougher.

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

Starmer said Johnson’s decision to reject the advice from his scientific advisers in September that a circuit breaker was needed amounted to “a catastrophic failure of leadership and of judgment”.