If the science is right, it’s a question of when not if there is an even tougher lockdown


The new strain of coronavirus has changed everything. If you took away anything else from from today’s low-key business-as-normal prime ministerial press conference, you shouldn’t have done.

Expectations which were being set just a week ago have been upended, plans everywhere from the Treasury to the Department for Education are being rewritten and the start of 2021 looks all but certain to be much more grim, even if the government itself is not quite ready to spell it all out with the candour it could.

The most important meeting of the day did not involve Boris Johnson, but government scientific advisers trying to work out what to do next.

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New variant: What more do we know?

Their conclusion should worry everyone.

They doubled down on their assessment that the new variant of coronavirus spreads faster, 50% to 70% faster, than the existing strain.

Whilst true that it does not cause a more severe illness or higher mortality rate, and that the vaccine is likely to work on the new variant, the transmissibility is itself a devastating development.

Politicians feel they cannot let the disease “rip through” the community, as it would result in more infections, more hospitalisations and more deaths and overwhelm the NHS. The new strain makes it harder to contain.

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If the science is right, the only question is when not if the government introduces an even tougher lockdown than the one announced by the prime minister’s emergency press conference on Saturday night.

Mr Johnson’s chief scientific advisor coughed to this in the middle of the press conference, in passing, with little fanfare.

Pressed on whether there was a need for new restrictions, Sir Patrick Vallance declared that “measures are likely to be increased in some places in due course”.

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Chief scientific adviser warns of more restrictions

Speaking from the podium in Downing Street, standing next to the prime minister, this is as good as a promise to the nation as it comes, even though the prime minister didn’t engage or acknowledge, however.

Privately Downing Street concedes this means more areas going into the newly created Tier 4, but believe this can be held off to the next formal review point of 30 December. We shall see.

The second area lacking complete transparency comes over schools.

Government scientific advisers have formally sounded the alarm bells over secondary school aged pupils.

Today they said that the new variant can be transmitted just as must by children as by adults.

Over in Northern Ireland, the health minister has announced schools are all not set to reopen in January.

There are senior voices in government saying don’t open the schools in January if you want to avoid case rates spiking massively.

Mr Johnson, however, was equivocal. Look at the way he phrased his reply: “I think the most useful thing I can tell you at this stage is obviously if we possibly can get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January, the way that we have set out.

“But obviously, the commonsensical thing to do is follow the path of the epidemic as we showed last Saturday and keep things under constant review.

“It is very, very important to get kids and keep kids in education if we possibly can.”

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He does not suggest parents prepare for the worst. But he does not – because he cannot – suggest they assume schools open as normal.

When might we find out what January holds? Neil Ferguson, the Imperial academic who is back advising government, said that the best thing to do would be monitor COVID cases over the next two weeks while schools are shut and people are at home, and decide after that.

Mr Johnson, as ever, is unlikely to take a decision he doesn’t yet need to make.

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