Boris Johnson has refused to rule out an extended national lockdown for England if the scheduled four weeks of restrictions fail to rein in coronavirus infections, telling MPs only that it was his “hope” to reopen the economy before Christmas.
In a mixed message before an afternoon Commons vote on the lockdown, which is due to start on Thursday, the prime minister had earlier told the CBI conference that the restrictions would definitely end in four weeks.
What does the ‘R’ number of coronavirus mean?
R, or the ‘effective reproduction number’, is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread. It’s the average number of people on to whom one infected person will pass the virus. For an R of anything above 1, an epidemic will grow exponentially. Anything below 1 and an outbreak will fizzle out – eventually.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the estimated R for coronavirus was between 2 and 3 – higher than the value for seasonal flu, but lower than for measles. That means each person would pass it on to between two and three people on average, before either recovering or dying, and each of those people would pass it on to a further two to three others, causing the total number of cases to snowball over time.
The reproduction number is not fixed, though. It depends on the biology of the virus; people’s behaviour, such as social distancing; and a population’s immunity. A country may see regional variations in its R number, depending on local factors like population density and transport patterns.
Hannah Devlin Science correspondent
In a video message to the event, produced after the prime minister pulled out of a scheduled speech on Monday, he told CBI delegates: “Believe me, we will end these autumn measures on 2 December when they expire.”
But under pressure from Keir Starmer at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Johnson would say only that the lockdown rules would expire on 2 December, which they will do under law.
He declined twice to fully engage with questions from the Labour leader about whether the government could then propose an extension to national restrictions if the R rate was still above 1, meaning the number of Covid cases was still rising.
“Will the lockdown end on 2 December, come what may, or will it depend on circumstances at the time? People need to know that,” Starmer asked.
Johnson responded: “These autumn measures to combat the surge will expire automatically on 2 December, and we will then, I hope very much, be able to get this country going again, to get businesses, to get shops going again in the run-up to Christmas.
“But that depends on us all doing our bit now to make sure that we get the R down. I have no doubt that we can.”
Starmer pressed the PM with his next question, asking specifically if lockdown would end if the R rate remained above 1 on 2 December, with Johnson avoiding the question.
The Labour leader expressed exasperation, saying: “I just want some basic honesty. This is serious – we’ve got to look the public in the eye.”
Earlier in the Commons exchanges, Starmer had asked Johnson to justify his delay in imposing a national lockdown, saying that on 21 September, when government scientists advised a “circuit breaker” period to reduce infection rates, the daily Covid death toll had been 11.
“On Monday, 42 days later, the number of people who tragically lost their lives to Covid-19 was 397 – that’s a staggering 35-fold increase,” Starmer said. “Does the prime minister understand the human cost of his delay in acting?”
In an answer seemingly aimed as much to the Conservative rebels who plan to vote against the lockdown, Johnson said there had been no choice but to change course, while insisting it had been right to first try a system of tiered regional restrictions.
“It is precisely because we understand the economic cost, and it is precisely because we understand the social, the psychological damage of lockdown, that it was right to go for the local and the regional solutions,” he said.
Starmer urged the PM to use the lockdown to improve the performance of the test-and-trace system, saying it was not reaching enough contacts, and that too many people were not self-isolating when told to.
Johnson praised the performance of the system overall, but added: “I am perfectly willing to accept the failings of NHS test and trace, of course I am. And of course I take full responsibility for the frustrations people have experienced with that system.”
At the CBI conference, Johnson said he knew many companies had taken major steps to comply with restrictions. “I want to thank you for the heroic efforts you’ve made to look after your employees, to make your premises Covid-secure, putting in Perspex screens, all the trouble you’ve gone to in complying with the kinds of diktats that I never believed we would have to impose, which, I assure you, go completely against every free market instinct I possess.”