London | Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pleaded with Britons to “stick together” and “defeat this virus”, acknowledging the country’s lockdown fatigue but saying “there is only one way out of this”.
Mr Johnson’s bid to get on the front foot followed a week in which he seemed to being losing his grip on the crisis: COVID-19 cases are surging, his backbench MPs were threatening mutiny, he was unable to explain his own restrictions, and the shortfall in testing capacity was rumbling on.
But early on Thursday (AEST) he headed off a parliamentary rebellion against his lockdown rules, promising more consultation and debate with MPs if – or when – new nationwide restrictions are introduced.
He also vowed to go back to regular press conferences, and rattled off upbeat statistics on the government’s testing capacity, equipment stockpile and hospital preparedness.
But he admitted the lockdown measures introduced in the past week had not yet reversed the pandemic’s rising tide, saying it was “too early to tell” whether the new curbs would work without “further measures”.
Britain’s daily reported new infections topped 7000 for a second straight day on Wednesday, and there were another 71 deaths. Average hospitalisation rates, particularly for older people, are at levels last seen in early July.
“No matter how impatient we may be, how fed up we become, there is only one way of doing this,” Mr Johnson told a televised press conference, warning that he didn’t want to tighten the lockdown but “wouldn’t hesitate” if necessary.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also used a public address on Wednesday to urge the public to remain disciplined and patient in the face of rising case numbers.
“We risk everything that we have achieved in the past few months,” she told the German parliament. “We must show we can continue to behave patiently and sensibly and in doing so save lives.”
Britain has a two-week-old generalised restriction on the size of gatherings, augmented by much more intensive curbs on household mingling across the hard-hit north of England.
There’s also a controversial pub curfew, a recommendation to work from home, and even some specific restrictions on activities such as how many people can sing indoors.
It’s these more fiddly rules that have particularly riled some of Mr Johnson’s more libertarian MPs. But the Prime Minister headed off a potential Tory rebellion against his restrictions early on Thursday (AEST) by promising more parliamentary consultation on any measure with nationwide effect, alongside more data and more time for debate.
“This virus moves quickly, so we need to have the powers at our disposal to respond quickly,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told parliament. “It is deeply important to me that we strike the right balance between acting at pace and proper scrutiny.”
The Tory lockdown sceptics were placated, but the Opposition Labour Party went on the attack.
“The incredible efforts of the British people have not been met with competence and grip by the UK government,” said shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds.
“Announcements of measures are made overnight, with no proper notice, no proper power of review. Government ministers [go] on national media with no idea about what the rules are.”
Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said localised lockdowns were being introduced centrally without enough coordination with local authorities, leaving councils under-prepared and under-resourced.
“We’re now looking at the most difficult winter we’ve ever known in this country. It’s staring us in the face,” he told a press conference early on Thursday (AEST). “We’re nowhere near where we need to be in terms of our readiness to face that winter.”
Mr Hancock said the British government’s aim was to suppress the virus until there was a vaccine.
But Mike Ryan, director of the emergencies program at the World Health Organisation, told a Chatham House event on Wednesday that since a vaccine was not in immediate prospect, living with the virus was the only option.
This shouldn’t require blanket lockdowns, he said but instead needed three key measures: mass testing backed up by rigorous contact tracing; financial and other support for people required to self-isolate; and a clear medium-term strategy.
“Communities are getting frustrated… people are getting tired. Not confused, but just genuinely p’ed off with this idea of what’s happening to them, to their lives, to their communities,” he said. “We need absolute clarity from governments on what their plan is for the next six months.”
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