India variant threatens lockdown exit; Poots elected DUP leader

Beyond England Downing Street Health and Education In the media

Boris Johnson has warned that the route out of lockdown may face “serious disruption” because of the India variant, just two days before the biggest lifting of restrictions in England for a year.

Rising numbers of cases combined with “important unknowns” about the variant, including how transmissible it is, means “hard choices” may have to be made, the prime minister said.

Plans to lift restrictions on Monday (May 17) will still go ahead, Johnson confirmed while warning the presence of the variant “could make it more difficult” to lift all restrictions as planned on June 21.

Vaccine rollout means ‘situation is very different from last year’ – PM

“I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June,” said Johnson,.

He added: “The situation is very different from last year, we are in the throes of an incredible vaccine rollout … We just have to wait and see … we rule nothing out.”

Addressing today’s Downing Street briefing, Johnson said “the race between our vaccine programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter”.

He confirmed the 12 weeks between vaccine jabs will be cut to eight weeks for the clinically vulnerable and over 50s.

Army deployed in variant hotspots

The army is being deployed to two hotspots where the “variant of concern”is most prevalent – Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen – where soldiers will deploy to help ongoing surge testing.

Restrictions will also be lifted in these areas on Monday as the prime minister urged people to “think twice” about travelling into areas with high levels of variant infection

Public health director for Blackburn with Darwen, Dominic Harrison said while he is pleased there will not be a “local lockdown, “I am much less pleased that he [Johnson] has not given a clear offer to us of ‘surge vaccination’ to everyone in the most affected wards in Blackburn with Darwen.

“Common sense suggests that our borough as an area of continued higher transmission of the virus should have had an accelerated vaccination programme from January. The Council wrote to Matt Hancock asking for this and were told this was not going to happen. We now have the predicted rise in rates and a more transmissible variant.

“People will be able to draw their own conclusions from that about the claim from the government that ‘we are doing all we can to reduce the risks’.”

Christian fundamentalist elected as DUP leader

In Northern Ireland, Edwin Poots has been elected leader of thr DUP, beating rival Jeffrey Donaldson MP by the narrowest of margins – 19 votes to 17 in a ballot of senior party figures.

Poots is the current agriculture minister who toppled first minister Arlene Foster from the DUP’s top job, largely over the Northern Ireland protocol.

He is a “fundamentalist Christian” who believes “the Earth is just 6,000 years old and was created by God in about 4,000 BC” and “a popular choice among DUP die-hards”. The 55-year-old was first elected to Stormont in 1998. He opposed the Good Friday Agreement, disagreed with reforming the police force and replacing the RUC with the PSNI, and maintained the ban on gay men donating blood after it had been lifted across the UK. He has also argued against allowing gay couples to adopt children. Poots is also a farmer.

In February this year – just weeks after stepping down to undergo surgery for kidney cancer – Poots, the agriculture minister, controversially withdrew workers from carrying out Brexit checks at Larne port. He is staunchly opposed to the Brexit deal with the Times surmising his “election will be met with trepidation in London and decrease the chances of winning DUP support for any potential compromises with Brussels.”

‘DUP gone back 6,000 years’

He has signalled he will not seek to become first minister when Foster officially stands down at the end of June, having left her DUP role on May 28.

Boris Johnson tweeted his congratulations to Poots on becoming DUP leader and added: “People across the UK are best served when we work together, & I look forward to working with him, [Northern Ireland secretary] @BrandonLewis & the wider Executive as we build back stronger for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Associate editor of the Dialy Mirror and New Statesman columnist Kevin Maguire tweeted: “DUP gone back 6,000 years from Arlene Foster by picking Edwin Poots to lead the party, a creationist hostile to gays and divorce who believes the world was created in 4,000 BC. The only way is down.”

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