Boris Johnson has imposed the toughest national lockdown in England since March, shutting schools to most pupils to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by surging coronavirus infections.
The President of the Board of Deputies reacted to the new measures by welcoming the Government’s allowance for places of worship to remain open – but called on the community to be “meticulous” in following guidelines.
In a televised address to the nation on Monday evening, the Prime Minister pinned hopes on the rollout of vaccines to ease the restrictions, but warned that the measures being introduced immediately are expected to last until mid-February.
He told the country to stay indoors other than for limited exceptions and bowed to significant pressure to order primary schools, secondaries and colleges to move to remote teaching for the majority of students from Tuesday.
In a bleak statement, Mr Johnson said the new variant of coronavirus, which is up to 70% more transmissible, was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” manner and warned that the number of Covid-19 patients in English hospitals is 40% higher than the first peak.
“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic.
“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet but I really do believe that we’re entering the last phase of the struggle, because with every jab that goes into our arms we’re tilting the odds against Covid and in favour of the British people.”
He said people in the top four priority groups would receive a first vaccine dose by mid-February “if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails”, to allow restrictions in the nation’s third national lockdown to be eased.
It is thought that measures are unlikely to be relaxed until around 13 million people aged over 70 or classed as extremely clinically vulnerable have received the vaccine and been given enough time to be protected – about two to three weeks after getting the jab.
But Mr Johnson issued a series of ifs – on the public following the rules and understanding of the virus not dramatically shifting – before the nation can start “cautiously” moving down through tiered restrictions with schools reopening after the February half-term.
He said the lockdown will become law in the early hours of Wednesday, while MPs will retrospectively be given a vote after they are recalled early from the Christmas break, but the public should follow the rules immediately.
Places of worship can remain open for individual prayers and communal worship, but people should only visit with their household or support bubble.
However, last month, a third of United Synagogue communities announced they would close their doors amid concerns over the virus spreading in congregations.
In a statement, the United Synagogue’s chief executive Steven Wilson said: “We will continue to support our shuls which have chosen to remain open and will be introducing further measures to keep our communities safe, particularly when attendances are higher.
“Shuls planning to hold services tomorrow can do so, while ensuring all our and government guidance is adhered to. As we have said before, nobody should feel pressured into attending a minyan. We will continue to support shuls who have chosen to close, and those now thinking of closing.”
It added that online services and social activities will continue, in addition to a pairing initiative, so mourners can have someone pray for them in their absence.
Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “The measures announced by the Prime Minister are severe but they meet the urgent need to get the virus back under control.
“We are grateful to the Government for allowing communal worship and key life-cycle ceremonies to continue but urge people to be meticulous in the following the guidelines over numbers and social distancing. As schools have been forced to close once again with summer exams cancelled, we ask that arrangements be urgently put in place to ensure fairness in the education system and around results.
“We call for vaccines for teachers and other school workers to be expedited. Just as in wider society, Covid-related deaths in our community have risen sharply over recent weeks. Nobody can afford to be complacent.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the measures are “necessary” and his party supports them, meaning that although Mr Johnson will want to minimise the scale of any Tory rebellion the Government is almost certain to win the vote.
The Prime Minister’s statement came after the chief medical officers for the first time raised the UK to the highest level on the Covid-19 alert system.
They warned the NHS was at risk of being overwhelmed within 21 days “in several areas” without further action.
The extremely clinically vulnerable who were previously told to shield will be advised stay at home and only leave for medical appointments and exercise.
The fresh restrictions were imposed as ministers hailed the rollout of the new Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine which begun when retired maintenance manager Brian Pinker, 82, became the first person to receive the jab outside clinical trials.
Mr Johnson was alarmed by new data shown to him on Monday to suggest cases were rising rapidly in every part of England.
He said the number of Covid patients in hospitals increased by nearly a third in the last week to almost 27,000 – more than 40% higher than in April’s peak.
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