COVID-19: Boris Johnson leaves viewers with more questions than answers

The prime minister knew, walking into his first broadcast interview of 2021, that he would face some difficult questions.

In the last 24 hours alone, teaching unions have warned their members not to take classes face-to-face because of fears over the rate at which COVID-19 is spreading, a record number of new cases has been announced, and the government has been forced to change its mind on primary schools opening in London this week.

It was unsurprising then that Boris Johnson’s message on schools appeared to be confusing.

During an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr he clearly stated that schools were safe, and parents should send their children back if their school is open.

But when asked to guarantee closed schools will welcome pupils again by the middle of January – the deadline he set – the prime minister could not say yes.

Nor could he guarantee that exams will be held as normal this year, or rule out further changes to the school system, despite his strong desire to keep everything up and running.

He cited advice from public health officials about the safety of schools, but this was written before the spread of the new coronavrius variant, which has been rising rapidly in younger age groups – though is still not causing serious illness.

The prime minister’s message, coupled with his repeated assertion that coronavirus restrictions will get tougher in some parts of the country, left viewers with more questions than answers.

There was no timetable for when changes could be made, or an explanation about what a potential new Tier 5 could entail.

With rising infections and deaths across the country, it isn’t hard to see why such measures might be needed.

But Mr Johnson also made the case that lockdowns do not work and are a blunt tool which will not solve the rapid spread.

Speaking on the vaccine roll-out, he pledged to vaccinate tens of millions of people over the coming months.

Yet experts have warned two million people a week need to be vaccinated for the current wave to be curbed. Mr Johnson apologised for his inability to be more specific.

It was clear from the tone of the interview that the prime minister understands the gravity of the situation the country now faces.

But it was unclear how he and his government will tackle it.

The vaccine and testing regimes will eventually be the key to suppressing the spread enough to return to normal life, but these could take months to get there.

Until then there will be some difficult decisions for ministers to take – on schools, and on everyday life for people around the country.