British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a tighter set of coronavirus controls on millions of people in England on Saturday, telling them to stay home, and drastically scaled back plans to ease restrictions over Christmas.
With the average number of cases in England soaring because of a new, more contagious strain of the virus, Johnson said the government had to take urgent action.
“I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year… I know how disappointing this will be,” Johnson told a news conference. “There is no alternative open to me.”
London and southeast England – about a third of the English population – are currently in the highest level of a three-tier system of rules and will now be placed in a new Tier 4 level.
People will be required to stay at home except for essential reasons such as work, and non-essential retail will close, as will indoor leisure and entertainment. Social mixing will be limited to meeting one other person in an outdoor space.
Johnson had said on Friday he hoped England would not need a third lockdown after Christmas. He had also resisted calls to change plans to ease restrictions for five days over the festive period and allow three separate households to meet indoors. He said on Wednesday it would be “frankly inhuman” to ban Christmas.
However, those now in Tier 4 will not be allowed to mix with others over Christmas. And all others will now only be allowed to see friends and family for one day.
The new rules will come into effect from Saturday night at midnight.
New rules just six days before Christmas
“Millions will be heartbroken by this news, having their Christmas plans ripped up with less than a week’s notice,” opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said on Twitter.
“At this time of national crisis, the British people want clear, decisive leadership. All we get from Boris Johnson is confusion and indecision.”
The UK’s other nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have imposed different lockdown rules over the course of the pandemic.
Scotland said on Saturday it would impose a ban on travel to the rest of the United Kingdom, and the Christmas easing would be limited to just Dec. 25.
The Welsh first minister said all of Wales would go into Tier 4 from midnight, but two households could mix on Christmas Day.
New virus strain causing “sharp increase in hospital admissions”
Like other countries in Europe, Britain is battling to contain new waves of the virus. It reported 27,052 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday and 534 deaths, and there has been growing concern about a surge in infections and hospitalisations in the last two weeks, sparked by the new virus strain – VUI202012/01.
“This virus has taken off, it’s moving fast and it’s leading inevitably to a sharp increase in hospital admissions,” Britain’s Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance said.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the existing tier system was working in areas with a very low level of the new variant, but cases were rising fast in places where it was prominent.
Whitty said authorities had alerted the World Health Organization and were continuing to analyse the available data to improve their understanding of the new strain.
“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” Johnson said.
Britain has been one of the worst hit European countries – with more than 67,000 deaths linked to coronavirus and more than 2 million cases reported.
Other countries have also reported variants of the virus. South Africa said on Friday one such strain was driving a second wave of infections there.
“We think it (the variant) may be in other countries as well,” Vallance said. “It may have started here, we don’t know for sure.”
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)