The scale of the health emergency now facing the UK was laid bare on Wednesday night as figures showed that more than 1,000 people had died from the virus in the previous 24 hours and hospitals reported treating a record 30,000 Covid patients.
The alarming rise in fatalities came two days after the prime minister ordered a draconian new lockdown, which was endorsed overwhelmingly in a Commons vote on Wednesday.
The daily death toll for the UK of 1,041 people was the worst since the first wave of the virus last spring, and the number of new cases hit a fresh high of 62,322.
Boris Johnson was forced to defend his handling of the Covid pandemic as:
3,587 people were admitted to hospitals in England known to be suffering with Covid – surpassing the previous record high hit last weekend
Manchester city council leader Sir Richard Leese warned that Greater Manchester hospitals were “at serious risk of falling over”
Care home providers warned that rates of infection are rising as they await delivery of the vaccine, with one home in Sussex losing half its residents over Christmas
Headteachers warned that some schools are “rammed”, despite the lockdown.
The PM urged the public to stay at home on Monday, almost a fortnight after the government’s Sage committee warned that the new variant of the disease meant it was unlikely to be possible to bring it under control without tougher measures, including the closure of schools.
Speaking to MPs in Westminster, where the House of Commons was recalled to discuss the new lockdown rules, Johnson insisted the tiered Covid restrictions in England had been working, until the arrival of the new variant of the disease.
And he accused Labour leader Keir Starmer of making “party political points” when Starmer claimed the necessity for another lockdown was “not just bad luck and it is not inevitable” but the result of the PM’s failure to act earlier.
Johnson blamed the new variant, saying: “It is inescapable that the facts are changing, and we must change our response.”
But Starmer cited what he called a “pattern” of poor decision-making, including Johnson’s refusal to sanction a “circuit-breaker” lockdown in September, and to heed an official report that warned last summer of the challenges of a second wave, including the risk that the virus could mutate.
“We had a tiered system that did not work, and then we had the debacle of the delayed decision to change the rules on mixing at Christmas,” Starmer said. “The most recent advice about the situation we are now in was given on 22 December, but no action was taken for two weeks until Monday of this week. These are the decisions that have led us to the position we are now in.”
The government’s abrupt about-turn on schools opening caused chaos, with teachers hastily forced to prepare online lessons at just hours’ notice. With schools remaining open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, many are reporting significantly higher attendance than during last year’s lockdown.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, confirmed on Wednesday that exams including A-levels, GCSEs and Sats would be cancelled. He said the government would be relying on teachers to assess pupils – but details of how that will take place are yet to be announced.
Johnson’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, insisted that the prime minister had full confidence in Williamson, saying: “It’s a huge brief and the prime minister believes the education secretary is doing it to his utmost ability.”
In Wednesday’s debate in the Commons, Johnson promised that schools would reopen first, when the lockdown can be lifted – but declined to give a firm prediction of when that would be.
“Schools were the very last thing to close, as I’d always promised that they would be,” he said. “When we begin to move out of lockdown, I promise that they will be the very first things to reopen. That moment may come after the February half-term, although we should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead.”
Few Tory MPs voiced outright opposition to the new lockdown, though many pressed Johnson and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to accelerate the delivery of the vaccine, and called for more financial support for hard-hit businesses.
With the support of Labour, the new regulations were overwhelmingly passed, by 524 votes to 16. The rebels included New Forest West MP Desmond Swayne, who told the prime minister the latest regulations were “pervaded with a pettifogging malice”, citing the fact that members of the same household cannot play tennis or golf together. Johnson told him: “Pettifogging, yes. Malicious, no.”
The daily death toll from the virus was the highest since last spring, when there were more than 1,000 deaths a day for 22 consecutive days – though at the time hospital and care home deaths were not collated into a single daily figure.
Leese, speaking at a press conference in Manchester, said the risk of the region’s hospitals “falling over” had been used by Hancock and others as a reason for putting Greater Manchester into tier 3 restrictions last year.
“I don’t believe we were at risk of falling over at that time. I now do believe that we are at serious risk of falling over, and that really does mean we have to do everything possible to ensure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Leese added that 30% of all new local cases were of the new variant – suggesting it is successfully spreading well outside England’s south-east, where it was first identified.
In the Commons, Labour MP Yvette Cooper asked why the government had not yet imposed restrictions on arrivals in the UK, given that another, South African variant of Covid has been identified – which, some scientists fear, could be resistant to vaccines. The government has said it is considering imposing a requirement for pre-departure testing of visitors to the UK, but has not yet announced details of the regime.
A spokesman for Johnson said on Wednesday: “Obviously the global and domestic situation that we’re seeing has changed, with increasing levels of coronavirus, so it’s important we take the action we need. The principle of pre-departure testing is that it will allow an extra layer of protection against the virus.”
Details are expected to be announced before the end of the week.