British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed tighter coronavirus curbs on millions of people in England and largely reversed plans to ease restrictions over Christmas, as the country battles a new more infectious strain of the virus.
The number of cases in England has soared in the last two weeks because of a variant of the virus that scientists said is up to 70 percent more transmissible.
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Although Johnson and his scientific advisors believe vaccines will still be effective, and the new strain is not more deadly or more serious in terms of the illness caused, the prime minister said the government had to take urgent action.
“It is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” Johnson told a news conference on Saturday. “I sincerely believe there is no alternative open to me.”
London and southeast England – with 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.
“There’s no evidence that [the new strain] causes more severe illness or higher mortality, but it does appear to be passed on significantly more easily,” Johnson said.
“Although there’s considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the old variant, the original version of the disease. This is early data and it’s subject to review.”
“But it’s the best that we have at the moment and we have to act on information as we have it, because this is now spreading very fast.”
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 midnight.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty had earlier in the day confirmed the new strain, saying that London already informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of its findings.
“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the southeast [an expert body advising the government] now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly,” Whitty said.
“We have alerted the World Health Organization,” he said, but added: “There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is under way to confirm this.”
The WHO, in a Twitter post, said it was in close contact with officials in the UK and said it would update the public “as we learn more about the characteristics of this virus variant and any implications”.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) December 19, 2020
Britain reported 27,052 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday and 534 deaths. The reproduction “R” number is estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.2, meaning the number of cases is rapidly increasing.
“Failing to act decisively now, will mean further suffering,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said on Twitter.
Under the Tier 3 rules, people cannot socialise indoors, and restaurants and pubs can only offer takeaway service. Shops remain open, however.
The government had previously planned to ease restrictions on socialising from December 23 to 27 to allow people to travel and celebrate Christmas with family and friends.
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 December 25.
The Welsh first minister said all of Wales would go into Tier 4 from midnight, but two households could mix on Christmas Day.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from London, said Johnson’s government has been criticised by the opposition and some experts throughout the pandemic for moving too slowly and not taking strict enough measures, including over the previously planned relaxation over Christmas.
“You can argue that this new strain of the virus has given the government a chance to roll back something which they may have been considering the last few days might have been a mistake,” Challands said.
“But in going for an extra tier, Tier 4, this has been not just rolling something back, it’s actually been making a new level of restrictions much more severe than what the country has been exposed to over the last few weeks and months,” he said.
“It’s going to be a dark Christmas period for most of this country, and I think that’s going to be something that is going weigh very heavily on people’s minds.”