British politicians approved a month-long lockdown in England, voting in favour of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to try to prevent COVID-19 running out of control and overwhelming health services.
Johnson insisted that the looming new coronavirus lockdown would end “automatically” in four weeks, as he tried to placate party critics over the spiralling economic fallout.
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Following a first lockdown in March, the second round of restrictions will come into effect at 00:01 GMT on Thursday, but Johnson told parliament the measures would be lifted in time to give England the chance of a more normal Christmas.
The 516-38 vote on Wednesday had been in little doubt after opposition Labour Party members said they would support the move, even though they criticised Johnson for acting too slowly.
He was also criticised by some in his own party who said a national lockdown was too severe.
Last weekend, Johnson abandoned a new system of regional curbs and announced an England-wide lockdown after dire warnings that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.
Senior minister Michael Gove then indicated the lockdown could last beyond a December 2 cutoff if it failed to bring infection rates down.
The leader of the main opposition Labour party, Keir Starmer, told Johnson in parliament that it would be “madness” to end the measures on schedule if cases are still rising.
But the prime minister pointed to a city-wide testing pilot scheme set to launch in Liverpool on Friday as a precursor to a nationwide programme, and said the lockdown would “end automatically on December 2”.
“We will then, I hope very much, be able to get this country going again, to get businesses, to get shops open again in the run-up to Christmas,” Johnson said.
The United Kingdom 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.
Britain has nearly 48,000 confirmed deaths linked to the coronavirus from just more than one million positive cases.
A total of 492 deaths, within 28 days of a positive test, were recorded on Wednesday – the highest since mid-May.
Other nations of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have imposed tighter restrictions. Some European nations including France and Germany have also recently imposed nationwide lockdowns.
“When I look at what is happening now among some of our continental friends, and I see doctors who have tested positive being ordered to work on COVID wards and patients airlifted to hospital in some other countries simply to make space, I can reach only one conclusion,” Johnson said.
“I’m not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people.”
The English lockdown measures include a return to working from home where possible and the closure of all non-essential shops and services, including pubs, bars and restaurants.
Some members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party are deeply unhappy about the impact on the economy, on civil liberties and on mental health.
“I decided that what we were being fed was propaganda and not the full facts,” Conservative backbencher Peter Bone told the AFP news agency, unswayed by a briefing by government scientists and direct talks with Johnson in recent days.
But the National Health Service, which runs state hospitals, said the resurgence of COVID-19 in recent months was forcing it to adopt an emergency footing when the new lockdown comes into force.
“Unfortunately we are once again facing a serious situation,” NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens told a news conference.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will detail new financial support measures on Thursday, the government said.
Also on Thursday, the Bank of England is expected at its latest policy meeting to boost its cash stimulus to fight the economic fallout from the pandemic.
The UK’s central bank is widely predicted to pump out an extra £100 billion ($130bn) under its long-running “quantitative easing” programme, bringing the total to £845 billion ($1,100).
The bank is also likely to revise down its forecasts for UK economic growth, amid deadlock over the UK’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the European Union.
Brexit and the pandemic pose a double whammy for hard-pressed companies, many of which have been laying off staff despite direct government support for wages.