England’s coronavirus restrictions may continue until the end of March, according to legislation published ahead of a House of Commons debate on the latest lockdown on Wednesday.
MPs return to Westminster to debate the introduction of a third nationwide lockdown, which includes a legal “stay at home” order. The latest restrictions are expected to be backed by a clear cross-party majority of MPs.
Although Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the measures will be reviewed during the week commencing February 15, government officials believe the lockdown may have to continue for longer, depending on the efficiency of the vaccine rollout. “Let’s be honest, it’s probably going to run till Easter,” one insider said.
Legislation published ahead of Wednesday’s debate stated that the tiering system of restrictions will now expire on March 31, instead of February 2. This “sunset” clause was previously put into law to address concerns of Conservative MPs who wanted a clear end date to the measures.
But the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, who are sceptical of lockdowns, is largely expected to support Mr Johnson in Wednesday’s Commons vote with only a handful of MPs likely to rebel.
David Jones, a former Brexit minister and CRG member, said: “There’s a great deal of concern at the latest figures and the speed with which the new variant is moving around the country.”
One Tory backbencher said he would vote against the government to “send out a signal” about widespread disquiet about the proposals.
“I’m very upset about this, it’s OK for journalists and MPs who live in big houses to be relaxed about lockdown, but for many people this is a nightmare,” he said. “The leadership is not acknowledging the pain this is causing. I’m going to vote against this even though I will obey the rules.”
Much of Wednesday’s debate is likely to instead focus on the government’s vaccine rollout programme and whether the prime minister’s target of inoculating 14m Britons by the middle of February is achievable. That would require about 2m people to be vaccinated every week.
So far, the UK has vaccinated 1.3m people but the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and opening of national vaccination centres in the coming days are expected to boost the daily inoculation rate.
Nadhim Zahawi, the minister overseeing vaccine deployment, said on Wednesday there would be “a massive uplift in numbers” of people across the country vaccinated in the first week of January.
“It is an ambitious plan. The prime minister is right to set an ambitious target. The NHS has a very clear plan and I am confident that we can meet it,” he told the BBC, acknowledging there were “complex” manufacturing challenges in distributing the vaccines.
Mr Zahawi also pledged that Public Health England, the body overseeing the vaccination progress, would work seven days a week to deliver the jabs, following reports that vaccines may not be administered on Sundays.
“They will work whatever days we need them. PHE will make sure that happens every single day, every vaccine delivery that we request will happen,” he told Sky News.
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