By Gareth Jones
MPs were recalled to Parliament today as part of an emergency debate and vote on the latest lockdown restrictions which came into effect yesterday in England (along with similar restrictions imposed in other parts of the UK).
The Prime Minister opened the emergency debate and told MPs that he hoped to be able to start unwinding the lockdown after the February school half-term, but it would “not be a big bang but a gradual unwinding”, stressing that “we should remain very cautious about the timetable ahead.” Much of the timetable would, of course, be dependent on the speed of the vaccine roll out, with the Prime Minister insisting that 14 million of the most vulnerable people could be vaccinated by mid-February.
In what was a major day of announcements in the House of Commons, MPs also heard from the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who said that teachers’ estimated grades will be used to replace cancelled GCSEs and A-levels in England this summer. He stated that “we’re going to put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms” – noting that there had been lessons learned from last year’s decision on exam grades which had come under much criticism. As expected, Williamson faced further questions on the government’s handling of school closures and why it had chosen to close schools this week when the warning signs on infection rates had been clear for some time. He stressed that “the last thing any education secretary wants to do is announced that schools will close and it was not a decision the government ever wanted to take.”, before acknowledging that “we must curb the escalating cases of Covid throughout the country and prevent for National Health Service from being overwhelmed”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock also spoke, providing an update on vaccination efforts, saying that the government is “working with the companies to increase supply” and said that as supply increases, there will be a need for more people to help with administering the vaccinate, such as pharmacists and even retired doctors. In response to questions about “unnecessary red tape”, Hancock said he has removed those barriers and it will be easier for volunteers to help out with vaccinations.
A vote on the lockdown regulations will take place this evening. Given that Labour have pledged to support the government’s package of measures on the latest lockdown, it is almost certain that the vote will go through. Given the rapid increase in the number of infections and hospitalisations over the past few weeks, the level of rebellion is expected to be relatively small from backbench Conservatives (and the so-called ‘Covid Recovery Group’ (CRG) of Conservative MPs, who are sceptical of lockdowns) – especially compared the rebellion faced by the government on a similar vote in November. That said, the anti-lockdown sentiment was very much on display in this afternoon’s debate, with Conservative MP Robert Halfon, calling for the reopening of schools after the February half-term to be “signed in blood and not just a guideline”.
After today’s emergency legislation, much of the political debate is now expected to shift onto the rollout of the vaccine – how quickly it can be done and who gets priority. Some have suggested, for instance, that teachers and support staff need to be given priority for vaccinations – allowing schools to reopen earlier. This would, however, beg the question over which group should be displaced in order to prioritise teachers. Such questions are not easily answered and will almost certainly be debated in the coming weeks and months.