Boris Johnson today desperately tried to win over furious Tory MPs as he defended his new national coronavirus lockdown and insisted he had 'no choice' but to impose tough new draconian curbs.
The Prime Minister told a recalled House of Commons this morning that his hand had been forced after a new variant of the disease was found to be spreading with 'frightening ease'.
Mr Johnson said the Government's vaccination programme meant almost one quarter of over-80s had already received jabs and England had vaccinated more people 'than in the rest of Europe combined'.
He said an Office for National Statistics study which suggested one in 50 people are infected showed it is 'inescapable that the facts are changing' and the Government's response had to follow suit.
The lockdown in England, which includes a strict stay at home message and the closure of all schools, is due to be reviewed in the middle of February but the regulations will actually last in law until the end of March.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Mr Johnson today resisted calls from Tory MPs to guarantee the rules will start to be eased after the first review on February 15, fuelling fears that the shutdown could last far longer than the initial seven week period.
Tory backbenchers slammed the PM's 'malicious' lockdown and accused him of an 'assault on liberty and livelihoods' as they demanded an exit strategy.
The PM said he hoped measures will be able to be lifted in the spring but warned there will not be a 'big bang' out of lockdown, rather a 'gradual unwrapping'.
Mr Johnson made clear that a successful roll-out of the vaccine programme will be key to determining when the lockdown measures can be lifted.
He said: 'We have already vaccinated more people in this country than in the rest of Europe combined and we will give the House the maximum possible transparency about our acceleration of this effort, publishing daily updates online from Monday so that jab by jab honourable members can scrutinise the process being made every day.
'Yet as we take this giant leap towards finally overcoming the virus and reclaiming our lives we have to contend with the new variant which is between 50 and 70 per cent more contagious.
'The tiers the House agreed last month, was working with the old variant but alas, this mutation spreading with frightening ease and speed in spite of the sterling work of the British public, this mutation has led to more cases than we have seen ever before, numbers that alas cannot be explained away by the meteoric rise in testing.'
Mr Johnson said the ONS report published yesterday showing the extent of infections across the country as well as rising hospitalisations showed it was 'inescapable that the facts are changing and we must change our response'.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
He told MPs: 'So we had no choice but to return to a national lockdown in England with similar measures being adopted by the devolved administrations so that we can control this new variant until we can take the most likely victims out of its path with vaccines.'
When Mr Johnson announced the lockdown on Monday night he said the measures would be reviewed in the middle of February.
But the regulations being voted on by MPs this afternoon are due to last in law until the end of March.
Mr Johnson tried to assuage Tory fears that the measures could still be in place in April but also insisted the nation must be 'extremely cautious about the timetable ahead'.
He said: 'As was the case last spring our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will not be a big bang but a gradual unwrapping.
'That is why the legislation this House will vote on later today runs until March 31, not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis, carefully brick-by-brick, as it were, breaking free of our confinement but without risking the hard won gains that our protections have given us.'
Mr Johnson said schools will be the 'very first things to reopen' when lockdown measures can start to be eased.
Sir Keir Starmer said Labour will support the new lockdown as he warned the UK is facing 'perhaps the darkest moment of the pandemic'.
But he said the situation is not the result of 'bad luck' and that it 'follows a pattern' as he accused the Government of failing to heed the warnings of experts and of repeatedly failing to act swiftly enough.
'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 and the worst-hit economy of major economies,' he said.
'In the early summer, a Government report called 'Preparing for a challenging winter' warned of the risk of a second wave, of the virus mutating and of the NHS being overwhelmed.
'It set out the preparations the Government needed to take, I put that report to the Prime Minister at PMQs in July.