British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won parliament's backing for England's latest lockdown on Wednesday after telling lawmakers that schools would be the first to reopen when he can start a "gradual unwrapping" of the strict measures.
Faced with criticism over the timing of the lockdown and the abrupt closure of all schools, Johnson defended his decision by saying the new, more contagious, coronavirus variant and the threat it posed to the health service offered little choice.
Johnson justified his decision on schools, which some lawmakers said threatened to hurt the opportunities of millions of children, by saying he did "everything in our power to keep them open" until "every other option had been closed off".
"And when we begin to move out of lockdown I promise they will be the very first things to reopen. That moment may come after the February half-term, although we should remain extremely cautious about the timetable ahead," he said.
"And as was the case last spring, our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will be not a big bang but a gradual unwrapping."
Lawmakers voted 524-16 in favour of the lockdown, which is already in law.
Britain has been among the countries worst-hit by COVID-19, with the highest death toll in Europe and case numbers repeatedly reaching record highs.
Johnson, who has been criticised for being too slow to introduce strict regulations in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, was not expected to face a large rebellion from his Conservative Party in the vote on the latest lockdown.
But his seeming reluctance to introduce tougher measures quickly to curb a surge in infections and his mixed messages on opening primary schools have prompted criticism, not only in the opposition Labour Party but also among Conservatives.
Some in his party are also critical of any "draconian" restrictions, demanding that they be removed as quickly as possible. But Johnson was cautious about any time lines.
He said the legislation would run until March 31 "not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then, but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers (of restrictions) on a regional basis".