Mar 23, 2021
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson COVID-19 Press Conference Transcript March 23
Boris Johnson held a Downing Street press conference on March 23, 2021 to provide updates on COVID-19 and vaccine distribution. Read the full transcript of the briefing here.
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Boris Johnson: (07:16)
Good afternoon everybody, thank you for joining us. When I asked you to go into lockdown exactly a year ago, it seemed incredible that in the 21st century, this was the only way to fight a new respiratory disease. To stay at home, to avoid human contact, to shun so many of the patterns of behavior that are most natural and obvious to all of us. But we did it together to protect the NHS, to save lives. And for the entire British people, it’s been an epic of endurance and privation of children’s birthday parties canceled, of weddings postponed, of family gatherings of all kinds simply deleted from the diary. And worst of all, in that time, we’ve suffered so many losses. And for so many people, our grief has been made more acute because we’ve not been able to see our loved ones in their final days to hold their hands or even to mourn them together.
Boris Johnson: (08:23)
And at the right moment, we will come together as a country to build a fitting and a permanent memorial to the loved ones we’ve lost and to commemorate this whole period. For month after month, our collective fight against coronavirus was like fighting in the dark against a callous and invisible enemy until science helped us to turn the lights on and to gain the upper hand. And I want to renew my thanks to everyone responsible for the astounding vaccine rollout which has enabled us to protect more than 28 million people across the whole of the United Kingdom with a first jab and administer more than 30 million doses in total. And I want to thank everybody for their courage, your courage, discipline, and patience. When people come to describe this epidemic to future generations, we’ll tell the story of the heroes of the NHS and social care, the pharmacist, teachers, armed service personnel, shop workers, transport workers, the police, and so many others.
Boris Johnson: (09:33)
But in the end, this was unlike any other struggle in my lifetime in that our entire population has been engaged. And it’s thanks to all of you therefore that we can continue on our roadmap to freedom. We will meet our targets offering a first dose to everyone over 50 by the middle of next month as well as those under 50 who are clinically vulnerable, and offering a first dose of vaccine to every adult by the end of July. And cautiously but irreversibly, step-by-step, jab by jab, this country is on the path to reclaiming our freedoms. Thank you very much. And I’m now going to go to Chris who’s going to do the slides.
Thank you Prime Minister. First slide please. The first slide I’ve just shown from September of last year because the data from this time last year, as everyone will remember, we just didn’t have the testing capacity to be comparable to what we have today. And as you can see, the rates of numbers of people testing positive for COVID in the UK is continuing to fall, but this is flattening off to some extent over the last week. And this is expected at this point of the curve in terms of it’s going down but going down more slowly, and we have always expected there to be some upward pressure as people went back to school and some unlocking happened. And this is expected as part of the process. Next slide please.
Fortunately, the number of people in hospital with COVID, and this shows data right back to April of last year, has come right down and it’s continuing to fall rapidly through a combination of everyone’s efforts on the lockdown, which is driving the significant reduction in cases, and the vaccine rollout, which is particularly accelerating this in people who are in the older age groups and those with preexisting health conditions. Next slide please.
And if we look at the number of deaths registered weekly in the UK, and these are the official deaths registered, again, going back to this time last year, you can see the very rapid spike up that we had this time from this time last-
… spike up that we had from this time last year. Then really right down to normal rates, very close to normal rates over the summer. But then the first part of the second wave and then when we got the new variant, the second part of the second wave, which is now fortunately again due to a combination of everyone’s work on lockdown, which is bringing the rates right down and vaccines which are protecting the most vulnerable, these are falling and falling rapidly. And as you can see, they’re falling much more rapidly now than the rate of decline of the number of cases. Next slide, please. I think as we are at this point, this sort of anniversary when lockdown started, I just wanted to show one additional slide to put this in context. Some people sometimes say, “Well, how much of a big difference did this make to overall mortality?”
What you have is the dotted line here shows the average number of deaths, the five-year average, and you can see very clearly the very substantial spike we had in mortality at the first wave. A rather lower one in the first bit of the second wave. And then when the new variants started, a second very substantial spike on top of the background rate of people dying naturally. And the ONS data that came out today this morning said that there had been overall since the beginning of the epidemic in the UK 147,179 people, this is to their most recent data to the 12th of March, who have sadly died from COVID. More will do so, but we are now on the downward slope. And then when they looked at the excess deaths, the number of people who died in addition to the number of people who would have died normally, it was 111, 641 and I think everybody watching and listening to this will mourn every single one of those deaths. Next slide please.
But the rates of mortality are fortunately now falling rapidly and that is due to a combination of the lockdown, as I said, and this is the other thing which the prime minister talked about, the steady increase now in the number of people who are vaccinated. We now have a situation where the great majority of people over 65 have now had their first vaccine and some people in the oldest groups are now receiving their second vaccine, or people who are frontline healthcare workers. So the vaccine program continues to be very important for making sure that as new surges happen, which they are likely to at some point, they will meet a wall of vaccinated people which will help to significantly reduce the ratio of people who catch the disease to the number of people who die from it. Thank you very much.
Boris Johnson: (15:04)
Thanks very much, Chris. Patrick, anything to add? Thank you very much. Let’s go to Sheila from Edinburgh.
How is the government planning to stop the spread of the third wave from continental Europe into the UK? Are there plans for lateral flow tests for a lot of drivers entering the country and total quarantine for everyone else coming to the UK from anywhere abroad?
Boris Johnson: (15:27)
Well, Sheila, thank you very much. Yes, indeed. We must be very wary of the potential for third wave. As Chris has just said, sadly, on the European continent, we are seeing distinct signs of a third wave and they’re taking steps to abate that, to deal with that. And we in the UK have very tough measures that our board is already including mandatory tests for anybody who comes here. You have to do a passenger locator form. You get fined 2,000 pounds if you fail to fill one in. Then when you get home from wherever you’ve come from, you have to get a test on day two as well as day eight. And again, you can be very heavily fined if you fail to comply and you fail to quarantine at home. As for people coming from the 35 red list countries, Sheila, there are indeed measures to take them directly from their point of arrival in the UK to a hotel quarantine where they stay for 10 days as well, and again, have to do two tests.
Boris Johnson: (16:47)
But as for your points about lorry drivers and hotel quarantine for absolutely everybody, I want to be clear with the public, we keep all these measures under review and so far as it’s necessary to take extra measures to protect this country against new variants, variants of concern, of course, we’re going to do that. I think we’ll go on to Tim from Northampton. And Tim from North Hampton asks, “It’s been reported that studies have found vaccine antibodies to last only a few months. Does that mean that vulnerable groups vaccinated first will need to be prioritized for second vaccination cycle before young people have even had their first?” That is an extremely good question, but I think it’s probably a question for clinicians and scientists rather than for me. So I’m going to go to Chris, first of all. Or who’d like to go [crosstalk 00:17:40]. Patrick, go ahead.
I think if you look at the antibody response to natural infection, which is probably the best data we’ve got in terms of long-term effects, you see them really lasting pretty well up to six months. We don’t know a long time beyond that. And I think the expectation is that antibodies for vaccines will also last for a reasonable period. We don’t know exactly how long because obviously people haven’t been vaccinated for very long periods. So you may see some slight decline, but on the whole, the antibody levels are holding up. The second thing to say is that the response to a vaccine is only part of the antibody response. There are other parts of the immune system, T cells and memory cells and other things that are an important part of the overall response. And so I don’t think there’s any indication yet that vaccine effects are waving.
That said, there will be a need to think about boosted jabs for vaccines in the autumn, I suspect, particularly thinking about getting high level of immunity to cover things over the winter.
I think the additional thing, just to add, is that the second reason for having to do a second vaccine is if we got a variant that had a relative escape from current vaccines, and that would be another reason why we might need to do re-vaccination.
Boris Johnson: (18:59)
Thanks very much both, and thanks Tim. Laura Kuenssberg, BBC.
Laura K.: (19:03)
Thank you, prime minister. The country’s been through so much in the last 12 months and so many people today are grappling with everything that’s happened. Professor Witty, Sir Patrick and you, prime minister, can I ask, if there’s one thing you wish you’d done differently in the last year, what would it be?
Boris Johnson: (19:20)
Well, I kind of had a feeling you were going to ask something like that, Laura, and you’re absolutely right. And I think in retrospect, there are probably many things that we wished that we’d known and many things that we wished that we’d done differently at the time in retrospect because we were fighting a novel disease under very different circumstances, I think, than any previous government had imagined. I think the point I’d made to you before, perhaps the single biggest false assumption that we made was about the potential for asymptomatic transmission. And that did govern a lot of policy in the early days or that misunderstanding about the reality of asymptomatic transmission certainly led to real problems that we then really had to work very, very hard to make up ground. But we’ve been learning the whole time and we’re continuing to learn.
I mean, I just wish we knew then what we know now. I mean, we’ve learned an enormous amount about this virus, about how it transmits, about asymptomatic transmission, about how it spreads in different environments, about how to treat it. So there’s a whole host of things that would have been nice to know then. The one thing that I think would have been really important earlier on is to have much better data on what was happening, and that would have required testing to be up and ready immediately and it would have required the ability to get that information into a source and to be able to see it. We can monitor the epidemic really, really well now and understand when changes are taking place. We simply didn’t have that at the beginning and it was very difficult to know the speed at which things were moving and therefore make decisions based on the real-time data which we can do now, and that would’ve made a big difference, I think.
I think the thing I’d add to that, I mean, I completely agree, obviously to both of those ones, is that our understanding not only of the speed of things in the UK was based on the fact we didn’t have really sufficient data and it wasn’t until people started getting into hospital and dying we had a really better fix on how fast things were moving. So that was very important. But in earlier stage, we had a much less of an understanding about how widespread the virus was in Europe for exactly the same reason, actually, because of the lack of testing in Europe, as well as in the UK. And so in retrospect, we now know that the amounts of importation there were from Spain, from France and from bits of Italy that didn’t obviously have a problem, for example, but at the time we didn’t have that information and that would almost certainly have led to a slightly different approach as to how we did things.
Boris Johnson: (22:12)
Thanks, Laura. Dan Hewitt, ITV.
Dan Hewitt: (22:16)
Thank you, prime minister. You talked then about learning lessons. Reflecting today, do you wish you had locked down the country much sooner, both in the spring last year and then again in the autumn? And a second, if I may, yesterday ITV News uncovered the most shocking and appalling housing conditions in Croydon, which experts have said are the worst they have ever seen. It poses serious questions for the landlord, Croydon Council. But we know that just under half a million people in England are living in substandard social housing. What have you done as prime minister to help people living in poor social housing conditions?
Boris Johnson: (22:48)
Well, Dan, first of all, on your question about the timing of the decisions that we took, these are very, very hard decisions and there are no good outcomes either way as I think all our viewers understand. All these consequences are very, very tough for people. And all I can say is we took all the decisions with the interests of the British people foremost in our hearts and in an effort to protect the public and to prevent death and suffering. That was what we were trying to do at all stages, though doubtless that there will be a moment to review, to learn lessons and to make sure that we learn those lessons, Dan, for future pandemics of a kind that I’m sure that there will be. And on Croydon, which I believe is currently controlled by the Labor Party, I remember when I was mayor of Croydon and everywhere else in London, building huge quantities of social housing and encouraging development of all kinds-
Boris Johnson: (24:03)
… encouraging development of all kinds in Croydon. And I greatly regret the story and the facts that you’ve uncovered just now. What we’ve got to do as a country is work together to build that better from the pandemic and particularly to give people the opportunity, not just to rent their social home. And perhaps the single biggest thing we’ve done is increase the local housing allowance to right the way up the highs of the local rental average. So we put much more money into the pockets of those who need to rent locally, to support those on the lowest incomes. That’s probably one of the most important things we’ve done to support social housing.
Boris Johnson: (24:48)
But in the end, you’ve got to build more homes. And that is the ambition of this government. We want to build 300,000 homes a year. And if you look at our planning, reforms, everything that we’re doing to drive that forward, that’s what we can do. Croydon, as it happens, offers fantastic opportunities for more development as I’m sure you know, and as I well remember. And it would be a great thing if the current mayor of London, without putting too fine a point on it, Dan, address the issue himself. And that’s what I would like to see. Let’s go to Beth Rigby of Sky News.
Beth Rigby: (25:34)
Thank you, prime minister. Finally, after a very long and hard year, the end is now in sight, but no one can doubt the huge star COVID is going to leave on our economy, on public health and on the lives of all our children. And to each of you, what do you think the main social health and economic challenges will be? And will we be grappling with the legacy of COVID and the past year for the rest of our lives? Thank you.
Boris Johnson: (26:07)
Beth. I certainly think that this is something that we will all remember and be dealing with in different ways, certainly in my case, for as long as I live. It’s been an extraordinary moment in our history and a deeply difficult and distressing period. If I look at the problems that we face at the moment, in addition to the continuing healthcare threat that we face, we must be realistic. There is another wave building on the European continent, amongst our friends. We will see it wash onto our shores. I’ve no doubt. The extent to which it affects us will depend, as Chris was saying, on the strength of the fortifications we’ve now built against it by the vaccine program. That’s one problem we still got to deal with. But the legacy issue, I think for me, leaving aside all the other backlogs is education.
Boris Johnson: (27:05)
And it’s the loss of learning for so many children and young people. That’s the thing we’ve got to focus on now as a society. And that I think is an opportunity to make amends, because there’s going to be this year, a group of kids going from primary to secondary school. There’ll be perhaps 90,000, it’s calculated, who will be behind in their basic literacy, unable, properly to read or write. 90,000 more as a result of COVID. Between three and five months of education has been lost. And of course the detriment falls the hardest on the kids who have needed attention the most, and who haven’t been provided properly with the time and the support that they need. So that’s why we’ve been working so hard as a government to make up that gap. With everything that we’ve done through the holiday support, through investments in the catch-up funds. The 1.7 billion that we’ve put in, everything we’ve done to roll out laptops across as many kids as we could.
Boris Johnson: (28:19)
And that’s why in addition to the work that Gavin Williamson is doing, so Kevan Collins is the Education Recovery Commissioner who is leading that work of recovery. And what Kevan and his team are going to be focusing on is not just remediating the damage, repairing the damage, plugging the gaps, but I think there’s a chance to learn from the pandemic. And all the ways in which actually some teachers and some schools brilliantly, discovering how you can teach through Zoom, discovering ways in which we can actually teach better in some ways through the technology that we’ve been using. But also maximizing our use of tutoring as well. So that kids who are falling behind and kids with potential get one to one tutoring, where we think that can make a difference. And I’m not going to pretend that everything’s going to work first time. And, we’ve been through a long period where we’ve got used to things not working first time, but we’re going to persevere. And I think that we will start to make a big impact on those kids’ lives.
Boris Johnson: (29:29)
It’s been an absolutely unimaginable year for school children, for university students, for everybody in education. They’ve put up with incredible privations in order to help us, the whole country, get through. And our future as a country, depends on us now, repaying that generation, making sure they get the education they need. So for me, that’s the biggest priority.
I’d like to add, just narrowly on the health side. COVID itself, I anticipate being with us for the foreseeable future. We’ll have to deal with it in some form or another. Now science has extraordinarily responded to this. If you think where we were a year ago, vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and understanding of the virus, we will be able to bring it down to manageable levels, but it’s not going away. So we will have COVID for the indefinite future.
Second thing, which is a health issue from COVID. And we’ve said this right from the beginning. This is one of the things we were very concerned about, right from the beginning, collectively, is that the impact on other aspects of the health service will have some delayed effect. There will be people, for example, who have probably delayed having screening. And I would really encourage people to take that up for things like cervical cancer, breast cancer, which have run the risk of people having a delayed diagnosis. The same will be true for people who have not gone for routine or elective care as they normally would. That’s a medium term issue, but potentially could be a significant one, if we are not absolutely alive to it.
And the third one, which again, we’ve recognized fully from the beginning, and one of the things has made so many of the decisions very difficult is much of what’s happened in lockdown, has the risk of making people who were on the borderlines of deprivation in more difficult economic and other circumstances. And we all know that has a massive impact on longterm health implications. And that could have really quite a long-term implication again, if we don’t take it seriously.
I suppose the final point I’d make is that COVID has shown a light into areas of health care, that people who are being affected by COVID now, are the same family families, the same places, the same people who are affected by so many other diseases. And I think we really need to look at this very seriously, because the same people will be suffering from the diseases of smoking, other diseases of deprivation, and so on. We’ve really got, I think, to take this very seriously as a country and as a community.
Clearly, today is a day to think about all the people who’ve died this year as a result of this terrible virus, but also the people who’ve suffered both physical and mental health and all of the consequences that come with that and the societal effects. And in September, I asked the British Academy to get their academics together, to try and address the question, “What might the long- term societal impacts of COVID be?” And they’ve got 200 of the brightest and best of the fellows of the British Academy in a report was published today, trying to give an evidence base for what that might look like. And there are a number of things in there ranging from the topics that have been covered from education, to inequality, to health, that I think are highlighted and have profound implications for how policy might evolve. But what’s important is that there’s an evidence base now to work on. And that report, I think, will be useful for policy makers going forward.
Boris Johnson: (33:05)
Thank you. Thanks both, and thanks Beth. Ben Riley-Smith, Telegraph.
Ben Riley-Smith: (33:10)
Thank you. A question for the prime minister and also the government scientists, which actually picks up on Chris Whitty’s comments there. We’re a year into this pandemic, should UK government’s policy objective now be to eradicate COVID, or simply bring down cases to the lowest possible levels?
Boris Johnson: (33:27)
Well, Ben, I think it’s the second in the sense that I’m not sure listening to the scientists intently as I have for many, many months. I’m not sure that that eradication makes sense in a globalized economy, for one country alone. Plainly, as an objective for humanity, it’s right. And we should aim for it. But that’s my view. But, I hand to Chris and Patrick.
I regret to say that I think the chances of eradicating this disease, which means getting rid of it absolutely everywhere, or as close to zero, it makes no difference. We’ve only achieved eradication of one disease, which is smallpox, with a phenomenally effective vaccine, over a very long period of time, literally hundreds of years. And others have come close, but it’s very difficult. In terms of eliminating from the UK, this is a disease which is got most people who have mild symptoms, or in some cases, no symptoms, who can then transmit it. That makes it very difficult to find. We have good vaccines, very good vaccines, but they’re not 100% effective vaccines. We have good tests, but not everybody who needs testing is tested and really would strongly encourage people to do that.
I think everyone agrees we can get COVID rates right down. That should be absolutely our aim and to get cases of people who die and have severe disease as close to zero as we can. If we can go further, who would say no? But I think if you talk to anybody who looks at this really seriously, who understands how infectious diseases work, I don’t think there’s anybody who thinks eliminating from the UK, or eradicating globally for any long period of time, is a realistic prospect at this point in time.
I agree. I think getting the numbers as low as we can, don’t expect that this is going to disappear, expect that there will be recurrences of infections, particularly in winter. And this will become a circulating virus as others have done over thousands of years. And I think this is unfortunately what we have. I think the chances of eradication, true eradication, i.e. zero are in themselves very close to zero, as Chris has said.
Boris Johnson: (35:43)
Thanks, Ben. Dominic Yeatman, Metro.
Dominic Yeatman: (35:47)
All right. Thank you. Prime minister. When the time comes, as you put it, to describe this period to future generations, how will we explain why Britain suffered he highest death toll in Europe and the deepest recession? And secondly, if I may, people who own…
Dominic Yeatman: (36:03)
And secondly, if I may, people who own holiday homes overseas, such as your father, for instance, will be exempted from the travel ban affecting everyone else. Would you advise people to buy a second home abroad if they want to have a holiday this year? And a quick one for the scientists if I may. Are the new variants enough to explain why the second wave killed more people than the first?
Boris Johnson: (36:29)
Dominic, on your overall question about your league table question, I think I will respectfully go back to the answer that you’ll have heard from this podium many times, which is that the pandemic is, alas, tragically is not over yet across the world. We mourn the loss of every life that’s been lost in this country, and we’re going to continue to protect everyone to the best of our ability. But this is not over, and I think that international comparisons are premature at this stage.
Boris Johnson: (37:12)
And on your second point, really about global travel and holidays, a lot of people do want to know about what’s going to happen on the holiday front. And I know there’s a great deal of curiosity and interest, all I can say is it’s just too early to say. And so, my advice is to everybody to wait for the Global Travel Task Force to report. We’ve heard already that there are other European countries where the disease is now rising. So things certainly look difficult for the time being, but we’ll be able to say more, we hope, in a few days time. I certainly hope to be saying some more by April the fifth. And that’s, I think, the best you can hope for there.
In terms of the question you asked, Patrick may want to add to this, but it’s very difficult to be absolutely confident exactly what happened. We’re very confident that the majority of people who died in the second half of the second wave, which is by far the bigger one, were from the new variant. So first thing is, that has completely as taken over really in the UK, and that is now the variant. So that is what has driven a lot of these.
Now, working out what would have happened had the new variant not arrived is really difficult to do. And I think anyone who claims that they can with confidence, is misunderstanding the problem, but the height of the peak would undoubtedly been a lot lower, had that new, much more transmissible and probably more fatal, but that is more questionable, but the transmissibility, I don’t think is questionable. Had that not arrived, I think the pattern of the second wave in the UK would have been very different.
And what you can see when you see what’s happening in continental Europe at the moment, is the effects of the arrival of the B117 variant is actually causing problems in other countries as it has caused problems now. I share the PM’s caution about trying to do international comparisons, although I will make a technical point that if you’re going to do it, it’s probably best to concentrate on excess all cause mortality, just because that’s easier to compare between countries, but that’s a minor technical point. The general point is we had a bad outcome. Many other countries had a bad outcome. What we want to try and do is to minimize mortality in the future and learn lessons from the past.
Nothing to add.
Boris Johnson: (39:52)
Thank you very much, Chris and Dominic. Emilio Casalicchio from Politico.
Emilio Casalicchio: (40:01)
Thanks Prime Minister. I’ve got a couple of related questions for you, and one for the scientists, if that’s okay. The EU wants us to share our order of vaccines from a plant in the Netherlands called the Halix factory. And it’s been making threats to impose a ban on the jabs coming to Britain if we refuse to share. Can you answer yes or no whether we’re going to share them, which presumably would help prevent that third wave in the EU from reaching our shores. And the bigger question is, can we afford to share them? Meaning, if we give however many million doses to the EU, will we still have enough to keep our roll out on course?
Emilio Casalicchio: (40:36)
And the question for the scientists are, there are fears that if the EU does place an export ban on some vaccines to the UK, we might retaliate and get into a trade war. Some of those fears are coming from Pfizer, which has warned that if we stopped sending vaccine components made in Britain to the EU, their production could grind to a halt and presumably that could harm our overall vaccine supplies as well. So do you worry that a tit for tat trade war with the EU could put the the UK roll out at any risk at all?
Boris Johnson: (41:06)
Thanks very much Emilio. Let me go first and say that we’re all fighting the same pandemic across the whole of the European continent, and indeed around much of the much of the world. And vaccines are an international operation, they’re produced by collaboration between great international scientists. It’s a fantastic thing to see how they’ve been developed and we’ll continue to work with European partners to deliver the vaccine rollout.
Boris Johnson: (41:42)
So all I can say is that we in this country don’t believe in blockades of any kind, of vaccines or vaccine material, not something that this country would dream of engaging in, and I’m encouraged by some of the things I’ve heard from the continent in the same sense.
The only thing I’ll say, it’s a miracle we’ve got vaccines. It’s been an incredible effort by scientists from around the world. We’ve got companies, academic groups, others who’ve discovered, produced vaccines, right the way around the world. And in a sense, the clue to this is in the title of the problem we’ve got, which is a pandemic. It affects everywhere. This is something that’s only going to be sorted out when everybody is sorted out, and therefore it needs an approach which takes an international approach to how we solve this problem of the virus.
I’ll just add to that, and we’re all basically saying the same thing, which is every single one of the vaccines we have available depends on science from multiple countries for its intellectual origins, for its immediate recent development, and in almost all cases for its manufacturing and distribution. It’s absolutely essential we see this as an international problem. And scientists collaborate the whole time, so Patrick and I talk to our counterparts in Europe the whole time. Scientists up and down the UK, all four nations of the UK, are talking to their counterparts in Europe and in every other nation as appropriate the whole time. This should be seen as an international issue.
Boris Johnson: (43:16)
There is no point in one country being immunized on its own. We need the whole planet to be inoculated. Thank you all very much. Thank you.