This week kicked off 2021 in true 2020 spirit, with the country being plunged into yet another national lockdown and a failed coup d'état across the pond. With most returning to work this week, we saw the grim reality of the current state of the pandemic when reported deaths from COVID-19 topped 1,000 for the first time since the first peak in 2020. Despite a gloomy start to the year, hope is on the horizon with the vaccine roll-out and it does feel like we are forging a clear path out of the pandemic.
This week, we will examine the effects of the third national lockdown, the vaccine roll out, the uprising across the pond and Starmer’s potential strategies moving forward.
Brexit trouble ahead?
While it may seem like old news now, considering the events of the past week, it’s worth recalling the positive note 2020 ended on, with a trade and cooperation agreement having been reached between the UK and EU. This agreement was a positive step and has helped ensure that trade will continue between the two parties. However, despite an initial boost in confidence, there have been some teething problems and firms have warned that the new rules are already creating issues.
For example, companies such as Marks & Spencer have warned that the increased administrative burden is making it more expensive to export goods which will ultimately increase costs. Meanwhile, some other firms such as delivery firm DPD have cut some services in response to the increased burden. Moreover, many firms have expressed concern about the decreased volume of goods crossing borders due to COVID, which may result in real shortages on shelves by the end of the month. Although the country breathed a sigh of relief at the end of 2020 with the news of an agreement having been reached, it is clear that Brexit is not going away anytime soon and we’re likely to see further issues arise throughout 2021.
While we received some good news on the Brexit front, we are yet again back in lockdown. After a Christmas relaxation for some areas, the government implemented another national lockdown, almost as severe as the first with schools and colleges closed and university students told not to return to campus.
The lockdown legislation is dated until the end of March. However the government is hoping to review the lockdown mid-February with the hope that children will be able to return to school in some capacity after the February half term.
Looking at the headlines and data for the past couple of weeks, there is no doubt the current situation inside the UK’s hospitals is dire, which in part quelled a Tory rebellion. On Wednesday, only 16 MPs voted against the legislation for the third lockdown, which is significantly fewer than the number opposing measures implemented in December.
Whilst a majority are fully supportive of this lockdown, many have questioned why the government waited until 8pm on Monday (when school children had already returned) to announce schools’ closure the following day. The announcement marked a major U-turn by Gavin Williamson, education secretary, and the prime minister, who had decided to push ahead with the re-opening of primary schools on Monday, insisting they were safe and that school closures should be a “last resort”. Teaching unions had been demanding schools switch to remote learning since before the Christmas holidays which has led many to question why the government took so long to make a decision. With GCSE and A-level exams now cancelled (and it not yet being clear how they will be replaced), things may get messy for both the prime minister and the Department of Education in the weeks ahead.
Jabs in arms
However, unlike in prior lockdowns we have hope in the form of the vaccination programme. At the time of writing, more than one million jabs have been administered and the government plans to vaccinate 13 million of the most vulnerable people by mid-February. It is expected that this will begin to reduce the number of deaths and hospitalisations by the end of this month, with the hope that this may be the last lockdown. The Moderna vaccine has also just been approved by the MHRA although we will likely not see any doses being administered in the UK until March.
The British vaccination programme does appear to be quite successful, arguably due to the centralised nature of our healthcare provision. Johnson’s government may even be able to claim that they are “world leading” in at least one aspect of fighting the pandemic. With similar countries like France only having vaccinated 500 people in the first week, the UK looks comparatively successful. The main question now is how quickly the government can ramp up the number of vaccines being administered, as this is what will fundamentally save lives and enable our country to return to some form of normality in the near future.
Well that escalated steadily
After four years of Trump, we finally saw the length his supporters will go to keep him in power. On Wednesday, Trump fanatics stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the Electoral College votes being certified and presumably to keep Trump in post as president of the United States.
The coup eventually failed, with vice president Mike Pence sending in the National Guard but not before confederate-flag-carrying insurgents broke into the Capitol building, seizing the Chamber of Representatives and multiple congressional offices including that of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In response to the attempted overthrow of the republic, President Trump released a video on Twitter calling his rioting supporters “special” while asking them to “go home”. He was subsequently banned from Twitter for 12 hours and Facebook’s platforms soon followed suit.
Following the coup Democrats, including Georgia’s two freshly elected Senators, are calling for Mike Pence to invoke the 25th amendment and declare Trump unfit to govern. With only 12 days until president-elect Biden is inaugurated, the move would definitely be more symbolic than legislatively significant. However, with few arrests having been made, many may see it as an imperative step to quell further impending coup attempts.
The future of American democracy may appear precarious, however with the Democrats now controlling the Executive and both Chambers of Congress, many are hoping to see a return to democratic norms. Even within the Grand Old Party (GOP), there are small signs of the party pulling away from Trump. Soon-to-be Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell condemning Republicans who voted against upholding the Electoral College may be a sign that the party of Lincoln is considering its future.
The Biden administration’s first 100 days are bound to be the most challenging any president has faced, as COVID cases soar and the country’s famously divided healthcare system tries to vaccinate its population. On top of this, Biden must also grapple with an increasingly polarised country, where many are no longer operating in reality. The first of these challenges is a life and death situation which is rarely seen in peace time and the second will determine the future of the republic and guide our ever evolving new world order.
Sir Keir continues to support the government in its efforts to supress the virus and vaccinate the nation while simultaneously calling for them to do better. However, some are beginning to wonder whether the current leader of Her Majesty’s opposition is being overshadowed by the old top dog. Former prime minister Tony Blair has been on the offensive calling on the government to do more and to do better.
Blair was one of the first to call for an increased amount of time between the first shot and the second shot and is now calling for the closing of borders and for polling stations, pubs and empty offices to be used as vaccination centres. In fact, Starmer’s predecessor is now routinely generating more headlines than him. Meanwhile, Starmer is also having to deal with his own internal party politics with Corbyn supporters desperately trying to restore their previous leader. He also has to contend with how to respond to Brexit and any potential fallout from the UK leaving the EU. It is a tricky tightrope for anyone to walk, but Starmer must focus on building a strong opposition if the Labour Party is to ever claw back power.
A look ahead
Although we’re only eight days in, it’s clear this year is going to be another for the history books. The world continues to battle the worst health crisis for over a hundred years and while there is hope on the horizon, this hinges on how quickly (and successfully) governments can administer vaccinations to their populations. While it is too soon to predict, the hope is that the vaccine roll-out will provide the key to a return to normal life.