Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered England back into a national lockdown after the United Kingdom passed the milestone of one million COVID-19 cases and a second wave of infections threatened to overwhelm the health service.
The UK, which has the biggest official death toll in Europe from COVID-19, is grappling with more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day and scientists have warned the “worst case” scenario of 80,000 dead could be exceeded.
Johnson, at a hastily convened news conference in Downing Street after news of a lockdown leaked to local media, said the one-month lockdown across England would kick in at a minute past midnight on Thursday morning and last until December 2.
In some of the most onerous restrictions in the UK’s peacetime history, people will only be allowed to leave home for specific reasons such as education, work, exercise, shopping for essentials and medicines or caring for the vulnerable.
Essential shops, schools, and universities will remain open, Johnson said, and while elite sports will continue, amateur sports for adults and children will be asked to stop.
Pubs and restaurants will be shut apart from for takeaways. All non-essential retail will close.
Asked if a lockdown could be extended beyond early December, senior cabinet minister Michael Gove told Sky News: “Yes.”
“We can definitively say that unless we take action now, the [health service] is going to be overwhelmed in ways that none of us could countenance.”
“Now is the time to take action because there is no alternative,” Johnson said, flanked by his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and his chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.
“Unless we act, we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day.”
A government programme that has paid 80 percent of the wages of millions of furloughed employees during the pandemic was due to end Saturday, but will be extended during the new lockdown.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from London, said the extension of the furlough scheme “will come with great relief I think to people knowing now that they’re entering a period of lockdown and they do have the support of the government.
“So, this isn’t just a health issue, it’s a deeply financial and economic one, as well.”
Barker said the projections of rapidly rising infections and deaths gave the lockdown added urgency.
“That is why the prime minister has made this radical U-turn on his strategy which previously was all about local lockdowns and all about limiting the possibility of what is now a national lockdown.”
The imposition of stricter curbs came after scientists warned the outbreak was going in the wrong direction and that action was needed to halt the spread of the virus if families were to have any hope of gathering at Christmas in December.
Johnson was criticised by political opponents for moving too slowly into the first national lockdown, which stretched from March 23 to July 4. He fell ill with COVID-19 in late March and was hospitalised in early April.
The other constituents of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have their own policies and enacted tougher COVID-19 health restrictions last month.
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the government had missed a golden chance to lockdown England more effectively when schools were on half-term break last month.
“Well that’s gone now. That is the price of the government’s incompetence,” Starmer told the BBC.
The measures bring England into alignment with France and Germany by imposing nationwide restrictions almost as severe as the ones that drove the global economy this year into its deepest recession in generations.
Austria and Greece also announced on Saturday a nighttime curfew and the closure of cafes, bars and restaurants to all but takeaway service until the end of November to contain a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
The UK has the world’s fifth-largest official death toll, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
So far, the UK has reported 46,555 COVID-19 deaths – defined as those dying within 28 days of a positive test. A broader death measure of those with COVID-19 on their death certificates gives the toll as 58,925.
Starmer, who called for a lockdown two weeks ago, said the delay introducing the new restrictions will come “at an economic cost and a human cost”.
Legislators are expected to vote on the proposals on Wednesday.
The new measures apply to England. Other parts of the UK set their own public health measures, with Wales and Northern Ireland already effectively in lockdown and Scotland under a set of tough regional restrictions.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Saturday that, for now, people in Scotland should not travel to or from England, “except for essential purposes”.