London, Jan 27 (PTI) Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament on Wednesday that schools in England would have to remain closed at least until March 8 as the strict stay-at-home lockdown continues through February, even as he fielded a barrage of questions over the UK becoming the first European country to cross the grim milestone of over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths this week.
Addressing cross-party members of Parliament in a part-remote House of Commons session, Johnson reiterated his deep sorrow at every loss of life from the pandemic and said the best way to honour their memory was to work together to fight against the deadly virus.
He also told MPs that 6.9 million Britons have now been vaccinated as the government remains 'on target' to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups by mid-February.
'I deeply personally regret the loss of life, the suffering of their families. But the best thing we can do to honour the memory of those who have died and those who are grieving is to work together to bring the virus under control and to keep it down,” said Johnson, during questioning by Opposition MPs.
Johnson said the country remains in a 'perilous situation', with more than 37,000 coronavirus patients in hospital, and pledged to set out a plan to take 'the country out of lockdown' when MPs return from their 'half-term break' on February 22.
'We hope it will therefore be safe to begin the opening of schools for Monday 8 March,' he said, adding that other lockdown restrictions could also begin to be gradually eased after schools reopen as pupils returning to class would be the 'first sign of normality'.
'That plan will of course depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, the capacity of the NHS [National Health Service] and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated,' he said.
He also confirmed in the Commons that as part of further measures, Home Secretary Priti Patel will unveil a 'red list' of 22 high-risk countries, from where travellers entering the UK would be subject to a compulsory 10-day hotel quarantine.
'We have banned all travel from 22 countries where there is a risk of known variants including South Africa, Portugal and South American nations,” said Johnson.
'And in order to reduce the risk posed by UK nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in government provided accommodation, such as hotels, for 10 days without exception,' he said.
The Opposition piled enormous pressure on the government over the extremely high death toll from coronavirus, accusing it of not taking tough enough measures at the right time.
'For all the contrition and sympathy that the Prime Minister expresses – and I recognise how heartfelt that is - the truth is this was not inevitable,” said Labour Leader Keir Starmer, as he appeared via videolink for the Commons session.
Starmer pressed that the high death toll is 'not just bad luck', but the result of a number of mistakes from the government in its coronavirus response.
Johnson reiterated there will 'be a time to reflect and analyse', as he accused Starmer of 'seeking continually to attack what the government have been trying to do at every opportunity'. PTI AK ZH ZH