Less than a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a month-long lockdown for England, one of his top ministers and closest allies signaled the measures might have to be extended if they fail to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“It will get reviewed on Dec. 2, but we’re always driven by what the data show,” Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge show. “We will always take the decision in the national interest based on the evidence, the best information that we have.”
When pressed by Ridge on whether the restrictions could be extended if the data wasn’t good, Gove replied, “yes.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced that England would go into a second, partial lockdown as virus cases spike and government scientists warn the health system faces being overwhelmed. Total virus cases in the U.K. since the outbreak began have now passed 1 million and the country has suffered more than 46,000 fatalities, the highest death toll in Europe.
“If we were to have a situation where we found our NHS overwhelmed, it will also have inevitable effects on our economy, on people’s overall confidence and their ability to go about their daily lives,” Gove said. “This is a protective step that we need to take that nobody relishes. We feel that there is no alternative.”
Johnson had for weeks sought to avoid further restrictions that the government worries will hurt the economy. Under the new measures essential shops will shut, alongside bars and restaurants, but schools will stay open in a bid to allow people to remain working. In a BBC interview, Gove indicated that the government may prefer to extend the lockdown rather than further disrupt the education system.
The government also U-turned on its financial-support policy, extending its furlough program, which had been due to end on Saturday, until the end of the new lockdown. That’s the fourth time officials have changed the nature of the replacement for furlough since a successor was announced in late September and Gove said it will be reviewed if the lockdown is extended.
The dramatic steps mark an end to the tiered, localized approach the government had been taking to virus curbs, a strategy Gove said he hopes the nation will return to in December. It also comes after weeks during which Johnson said he wanted to avoid the “nuclear option” of nationwide restrictions, despite advice from scientists in September to introduce a shorter “circuit-breaker” lockdown coinciding with school holidays.
The U.K.’s sluggishness in imposing new measures given the record surge in virus cases is likely to raise questions about why officials didn’t act earlier, while the move is also politically embarrassing for Johnson. It risks both upsetting his own rank-and-file lawmakers and vindicating opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer’s repeated calls for a temporary lockdown.
“Three weeks ago we called for a circuit break,” Starmer said in a BBC interview. “At that stage the government rejected it out of hand, ridiculed it, now only to do precisely the same thing. But there’s a cost to that delay. The lockdown now will be longer, it can be harder. And there’s a very human cost to this.”
Even the announcement was fraught, coming days earlier than expected due to a leak of the plan’s details following a meeting of just four senior ministers. That breach is now under investigation, Gove confirmed Sunday as he defended the decision.
“The virus has proven to be more malignant in the way in which it spread than any of us had anticipated or feared,” Gove said. “The first thing is that the advice that we were receiving at the time indicated that a regional approach was entirely appropriate. It’s impossible to know definitively until the end of this pandemic which were the mistakes, and which were the missteps.”
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