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U.K.’s Johnson Says He Won’t Be ‘Blown Off Course’ by Pandemic

Boris Johnson pledged to “unleash Britain’s potential” next year as he tries to regain momentum and calm unrest in the Conservative Party over his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.K. prime minister ordered his cabinet to bring forward fresh ideas for a Queen’s Speech marking the beginning of the next session of Parliament, expected in the spring. The agenda will include plans to spend money on schools and hospitals, crack down on serious violence, and bring in tougher sentences for animal cruelty, Johnson’s office said in a statement.

“We were elected to get Brexit done and unleash Britain’s potential,” a spokesman for Johnson said in the statement. “The prime minister has been clear that we will not be blown off course in our plans to build back better and that’s just what our next Queen’s Speech will do.”

The government’s announcement Sunday is timed to coincide with the second day of the annual Tory conference, which is taking place online this year because of Covid-19 — robbing ministers of face-to-face meetings with members and the chance to quell dissent. The premier has faced criticism over lockdown measures and problems in the virus testing system, while some polls show his party trailing to Labour for the first time in several months.

Read more: Johnson Averts Tory Revolt With Deal on U.K. Pandemic Powers

Tensions were further inflamed last week when Johnson apologized for getting his own Covid-19 rules wrong. The government has been trying to strike a balance between trying to contain the pandemic and keeping as much of the economy running as possible.

Resurgent Virus

But coronavirus cases have surged in recent weeks and Johnson’s chief scientific officer has warned the pandemic is not under control. The U.K. reported 12,872 new cases in the latest daily data on Saturday — almost double the number from Friday — though the Department of Health said due to a technical error, cases not counted in previous days were added to the total.

On Saturday at the Tory conference, ministers tried to shift the focus onto the government’s plans for Britain’s economic recovery. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab promised the U.K. would “bounce back stronger” but an overnight report in the Sunday Times suggested several hurdles remain — Cineworld is drawing up plans to close all its sites in the U.K., a move that would put as many as 5,500 jobs at risk.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said new trade agreements will give companies suffering from “depressed domestic demand” a “bigger slice of the international pie.”

Truss also said the government must prevent “predatory” company takeover bids from abroad “that don’t necessarily have Britain’s best interests at heart,” especially at a time when firms are undervalued during the pandemic — though she declined to give an example.

Airport Swabs

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay said the government would not return to austerity as the country recovers from the pandemic, and said he expected an announcement in the coming days on Covid-19 testing at airports — a key demand from the travel industry to try to boost flagging demand.

House of Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg has written to cabinet ministers asking for “bold and ambitious bills.” The government must “make the most of the opportunities which will arise” when Britain leaves the European Union fully at the end of the year, he said in the government’s statement.

Johnson’s office also confirmed the next Queen’s Speech will include a bill to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which would hand the power to choose the date of the next general election back to prime ministers, rather than Parliament. Johnson blames the act for the Brexit paralysis of 2019.

Read more: Patel Vows Overhaul of ‘Fundamentally Broken’ U.K. Asylum System

On Sunday, Home Secretary Priti Patel will announce an overhaul of what she’ll call the country’s “fundamentally broken” asylum system.

Patel will use a speech at the Tory conference to set out a “firm and fair” immigration approach, according to her office, after it emerged last week that ministers are examining whether to process asylum seekers in offshore holding centers.

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