Boris Johnson, wearing a dark suit and having run a comb through his hair, addressed the nation to tell them that Coronavirus had unlocked a new Tier, bringing an end to Christmas for all of London and the South East, as well as putting out the fire on a Christmas holiday for the rest of England; Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford followed suit to plunge the rest of Britain into a lonely Christmas.
Just days earlier the prime minister had been warned, in Prime Minister’s Questions, by opposition leader Keir Starmer, that the plan to ‘save Christmas’ would end in lost lives. Starmer had been questioning the prime minister after Johnson had held talks with the leaders of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, in a bid to keep the original 5-day travel window for Christmas open – with the leaders of all four nations opting to stick with the original plan.
It would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas just 10 days before Santa visited children across the UK, said Boris Johnson on Wednesday.
His decision to wait and address the nation about the cancellation of the window, just four days later, has resulted in significant backlash against the PM, with criticisms about his ability to lead and his decision making coming from the opposition benches.
Whilst the Labour opposition has said that they support the measures, they are questioning the prime minister for failing to act sooner, as well as giving Briton’s hope of a Christmas close to normality, before dashing them as people have already made their plans, with Keir Starmer criticising Johnson’s ability to lead after the biggest U-turn of the Johnson era.
Speaking at PMQs on Wednesday, Boris Johnson had encouraged people to have a “Merry Little Christmas”, emphasising that people could meet up but that they had to be careful and make sure it was a lower-key event. This was despite already knowing about the existence of the new strain of Coronavirus that is reportedly behind the rapid increase in infections across London and the South East.
Boris Johnson has defended the decision based on the fact that the “science has changed” and therefore the country must change its response in order to protect themselves, however, this has not made the decision any less devastating for many families who had been expecting to finally be able to meet up after a long and difficult year.
The same decision has been taken in Scotland and Wales, with the travel window being limited to just Christmas day and the rules changed on many areas to tighten them and prevent the further spread of the virus; this has included closing the borders to other parts of the United Kingdom.
There are fears that the government’s indecision and late dashing of Christmas hopes will exacerbate mental health and loneliness throughout the Christmas period, with many having made Christmas plans and bought food for large family gatherings now having to spend the day alone.
The government were also extremely coy on whether the restrictions would bring with it further support for businesses, with Boris Johnson simply stating that there are a number of existing programmes, however, there have been calls for the government to go further, such as suggestions from Lib Dem and Labour MPs that there needs to be transfer payments to individuals; calls that will only grow after the significant financial cost of limiting Christmas gatherings.
It seems clear that the governments of the UK were aware of the potential scientific need to end the Christmas travel period for several days, but resisted calls of scientists and opposition MPs to act sooner; in the end, with the prospect of many more deaths, they had no choice.
The calls for Johnson’s resignation have only intensified since this latest decision, with some reports that he will resign in the spring being met by jubilation from some corners; Nicola Sturgeon has also faced similar calls to vacate office in the wake of serious failures.
Clearly, the need to close down Christmas plans are necessary, few are saying otherwise. With a surge in the virus, there is no way to justify keeping Christmas as planned, particularly in the South East, yet the last two months of policy have been aimed at ‘saving Christmas’ and the cancellation of Christmas on the 19th December, just days after saying that it could go ahead, will be viewed as a cruel and callous mistake that will cost people lives, and may be the final straw for Tory MPs patience in their leader.
As of yet, none are calling for their leader’s head, although Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chair of the 1922 committee – the group of backbench Conservative MPs – has been questioning whether it is time for Health Secretary Matt Hancock to go. It is surely only a matter of time before the committee line Johnson in their sights.