Britain’s right-wing government under fire as new COVID strain rapidly spreads
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced to reverse course on a plan to lift coronavirus restrictions for Christmas following the identification of a new, more contagious COVID-19 strain in Britain. Trade unions and the opposition Labour Party say it was reckless for Johnson to make the holiday promise in the first place. | Frank Augstein / AP

LONDON—Failing to introduce COVID-19 restrictions earlier was an “act of gross negligence,” Britain’s Labour Party charged Sunday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson sprung new measures on millions just days before Christmas. Johnson’s announcement altering public health measures came following the identification of a new, more contagious strain of the virus spiraling out of control.

Tough new coronavirus controls were placed on London, the southeast, and east of England from midnight on Sunday, sparking anger over the government’s handling of the crisis.

The additional measures, which ban household mixing over the festive period, could remain in place for the “next couple of months,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday. Hancock insisted that ministers had acted “very quickly and decisively” after they were told on Friday by scientific advisers that the new strain of the virus was spreading more quickly in the region.

“The new variant is out of control and we need to bring it under control,” he told the BBC.

However, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said that alarm bells had been “ringing for weeks” but that Johnson had repeatedly failed to act. “It is an act of gross negligence by a Prime Minister who, once again, has been caught behind the curve,” he told an online press conference Sunday.

“It was blatantly obvious last week that the Prime Minister’s plan for a free-for-all over Christmas was a risk too far. We have known about rising infections and the NHS reaching capacity in many parts of the country for weeks.”

The British government had earlier announced that it was lifting coronavirus restrictions on gatherings from Dec. 23 to 27.

Starmer said Johnson should apologize to the British public. However, when questioned over whether the Labour Party would review its opposition to shifting schools to online learning—education having been the largest engine of virus transmission during the second lockdown—he said there should still be “no more delay” in getting children back into classrooms following the Christmas break.

At a news conference at the Prime Minister’s residence at Number 10 Downing Street on Saturday, Johnson said he was imposing new restrictions with a “heavy heart” but that the scientific evidence had left him with no choice. It comes after he said last Wednesday that it would be “inhumane” to “cancel” Christmas.

The sudden imposition of fresh restrictions has thrown millions of families’ Christmas plans into disarray with households in London and south-east England now forbidden to mix after being told it was allowable to do so.

In the rest of England, the period for multiple households meeting will be reduced from a five-day window to just Christmas Day. Non-essential shops, hairdressers, and leisure and entertainment venues will close.

People at St. Pancras station in London, waiting to board the last train to Paris today, amid concerns that borders will close. Following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s sudden announcement to ‘cancel’ Christmas, thousands packed train stations in an attempt to escape the capital. | AP

Railway workers’ unions slammed the government Sunday after its announcement prompted a rush to London train stations on Saturday evening. Tickets from Paddington, Kings Cross, and Euston stations in London sold out as thousands tried to escape the capital before the restrictions set in.

Rail, Maritime, and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Cash said the scenes “reflect the shambolic approach of the government.” TSSA, which represents workers in the travel industry, said the chaos was “completely avoidable” and accused ministers of “throwing carefully crafted plans by the rail industry for safe travel over the festive period into disarray.”

Ministers said today that more police will be deployed at train stations to prevent people from making unnecessary journeys. The Trades Union Congress, Britain’s leading union federation, also called on the government to provide extra support for industries worst hit by the new rules.

TUC secretary for London and the South East Sam Gurney said: “The new Tier 4 rules will be very difficult for struggling sectors like hospitality and the arts. The government must step in with extra support for the worst-hit industries before jobs go and businesses close. And sick pay should be worth at least the real living wage so that people can afford to self-isolate.”

90-year-old Margaret Keenan, was the first patient in the UK to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, administered by nurse May Parsons at University Hospital, Coventry, England, Dec. 8, 2020. Her vaccination was a moment of hope, but the rapid spread of a new coronavirus strain in Britain has tempered the jubilation. | Jacob King / Pool via AP

Johnson’s announcement was followed by stricter controls in Scotland and Wales. The government attributes the U-turn to the prevalence of the newly identified VUI2020/12/01 strain of the virus, which is spreading at a faster rate than any other version.

Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the British Medical Association doctors’ union, said Sunday that doctors were reporting a “massive surge in COVID cases” with one in three seeing even more cases than during the first wave.

Several European countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy imposed bans on flights from Britain today in an attempt to prevent the spread of the new strain to their shores. In North America, Canada also prohibited any planes arriving from Britain.

In the U.S., as of mid-day Monday, Johnson’s right-wing brethren in the Trump administration appeared uncertain about what direction to take. Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir said everything was on the table, including a flight ban, but said U.S. officials do not know if the new highly contagious COVID variant has reached the U.S. yet.

Giroir told the press Monday, “It [the new strain] was identified in September. So there’s been a lot of travel back and forth. In general, the typical tests that we do to detect the virus, except for a very specific one, would not show this variant,” he said. “It could be in the United States and we might not have yet detected it.”

This story from Morning Star has been updated with breaking news information.


Morning Star
Morning Star

Morning Star is the socialist daily newspaper published in Great Britain. Morning Star es el diario socialista publicado en Gran Bretaña.