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England's schools will be the "very first" things to reopen after lockdown, Boris Johnson said today – but it might not happen next month.
The Prime Minister admitted he would have to be "very cautious" about reopening classrooms despite saying he hopes they'll be back from February 22.
A law MPs are set to pass tonight will allow the lockdown to continue as late as March 31.
Mr Johnson admitted the third national lockdown will only be taken apart "brick by brick", with a slow return to the tier system, not all at once.
Mr Johnson said schools will be “the very first thing” to reopen. But he added: “That moment may come after the February half term – although we should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead.
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“As was the case case last Spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will not be a big bang but a gradual unwrapping.”
Mr Johnson said that was why the law will allow the government to keep the lockdown until as late as March 31.
The PM defended his dithering and U-turn on closing schools – which he did only after primaries reopened for one day, and two weeks after SAGE warned the R number could not be brought below 1 with them open.
“We’ve been doing everything in our power to keep them open,” he said.
“Because children’s education is too vital and their futures too precious to be disrupted until every other option has been closed off.”
The PM defended his dithering and U-turn on closing schools – which he did only after primaries reopened for one day
The PM insisted "for most children the most dangerous part of going to school, even in the midst of a global pandemic, remains I’m afraid crossing the road in order to get there.”
But he admitted schools are a "vector" to spread Covid-19 to others in the community.
Labour leader Keir Starmer repeated his pledge that the party would back the Government's plan – but said ministers must ensure that errors from the first pandemic were fixed.
He told MPs: "In the first wave of the pandemic the government was repeatedly too slow to act and we ended 2020 with one of the highest death tolls in Europe."
He quizzed the PM on resources for the NHS, actions to support students without access to IT and financial support for those who have previously fallen through the gaps in income support.
Keir Starmer said: "The virus is out of control"
Sir Keir said: "The situation we face is clearly very serious, perhaps the darkest moment of the pandemic.
"The virus is out of control, over a million people in England now have Covid, the number of hospital admissions is rising, tragically so are the numbers of people dying.
"And it's only the early days of January and the NHS is under huge strain. In those circumstances, tougher restrictions are necessary.
"We will support them, we will vote for them and urge everybody to comply with the new rules – stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives."
Boris Johnson revealed “the eviction ban is under review” amid calls to extend it to the new lockdown.
But he refused to commit to extending the £20-a-week Universal Credit boost beyond April, when millions are due to suffer a major benefit cut.
Cases are rising across the country
Mr Johnson repeated his pledge that the top four priority groups will get their first dose of a vaccine “by February 15”.
He said next week seven vaccination centres will be opening in mass sites such as sports stadiums.
He added the UK had so far vaccinated more people than in the rest of Europe combined – in a "giant leap towards finally overcoming the virus and reclaiming our lives".
Boris Johnson was outlining to the Commons this morning why tougher curbs are needed to try and halt the spread of Covid-19.
It came after shock data showed an estimated one in 50 people in England are now infected.
The Office for National Statistics suggested 1.1 million people in private households in England had Covid-19 between December 27 and January 2.
One in 50 people in the community in England are now thought to have coronavirus
MPs have been recalled from the Christmas recess for a second time in a week, having been asked to vote on the Government's Brexit trade deal on December 30.
The seven-week lockdown became law in the early hours of today but MPs are due to formally vote on the measures.
Labour is backing the move and the Prime Minister is set to to secure a thumping majority when a vote happens at 7pm.
Mr Johnson is expected to be hit with a minor revolt by some Tory backbenchers uneasy that restrictions could last until the end of March – even though a formal review is due in mid-February.
It came as new figures showed one in four deaths in England and Wales registered in the week leading up to Christmas involved coronavirus.
There were 11,520 deaths registered in the week ending December 25, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
Of these, 2,912 (25.3%) mentioned "novel coronavirus" on the death certificate.
The number of registered coronavirus deaths and deaths from all causes both fell compared with the previous week.
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The ONS said the figures for the most recent week should be interpreted with caution as they had been affected by the Christmas Day bank holiday.
Senior officers warn people could be stopped by police to explain why they are away from home during the latest coronavirus lockdown.
The Metropolitan Police said the public should expect officers to be more "inquisitive" about why they are "out and about”.
Londoners breaching Covid legislation "are increasingly likely to face fines", the force said in a statement.
The new lockdown will be enforced through a new law called the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 3) and (All Tiers) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.
Legally speaking, the law puts all of England into Tier 4 and tightens up the rules for that Tier 4 – with police able to issue £200 fines.
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People must stay at home and may only leave if they have a “reasonable excuse” such as food shopping, exercise or a medical appointment.
While people are urged to take exercise only once per day, that is not a legal requirement.
Other parts of the Tier 4 rules have been toughened up however. Zoos and animal attractions must shut and takeaway pints are banned.
PCSOs have also been granted the same powers as police officers to enforce more of the lockdown-related laws.