UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced new strict coronavirus restrictions, closing schools and ordering a third national lockdown for England.
Nearly 56 million people in England will return to a full coronavirus lockdown, possibly until mid-February, to try to cut spiralling infection rates, the Conservative Party leader announced in an address to the nation.
The measures, which include the closure of primary and secondary schools, will come into effect Wednesday, he said in a televised address, after Scotland announced similar measures to come into force from midnight (0000 GMT) on Tuesday.
A faster-spreading mutation of the virus threatens to overwhelm the National Health Service and has thrown Johnson's plan to get English children back into classrooms into disarray. He had hoped Monday’s focus would be on celebrating the delivery of the first shots of a Covid-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca.
“The spread of the new variant of Covid-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country,” Johnson’s office said in a statement on Monday. “The prime minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives.”
Earlier in the day, all four of the United Kingdom's chief medical officers recommended the whole of the country be placed under "Level Five" restrictions, an effective nationwide lockdown.
"Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure," the medical officers for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland said.
"Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant," they argued.
"We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed," they added.
Johnson’s government is back in crisis mode, with new virus cases exceeding 50,000 a day and hospital admissions soaring past the peak of the first wave in April. The Tory leader, who ended the year on a high by securing a last-minute trade deal with the European Union, warned a “surging epidemic” means stricter rules are coming.
“If you look at the numbers there’s no question we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said in a pooled TV interview earlier Monday. “We will do everything we can to keep the virus under control.”
Former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was among those who called for Johnson to impose an immediate national lockdown. Writing on Twitter, he said schools and borders should be closed and all household mixing banned.
The Financial Times reported that there was consensus in the Cabinet to have primary and secondary schools closed until the mid-February.
Hunt’s successor Matt Hancock warned Monday there will be “some very difficult weeks ahead.”
It’s a far cry from the government’s optimism in early December, when the arrival of vaccines was described as the “scientific cavalry” coming to the rescue. The picture changed dramatically when the emergence of a faster spreading strain of Covid-19 led to the introduction of a stricter fourth tier of regional coronavirus rules that hammered retailers reliant on Christmas shoppers.
“There’s no doubt at the moment that infection rates are high, the NHS is under severe pressure – particularly in London and parts of the South East where the new variant has been accelerating in transmission,” NHS England medical director Stephen Powis told the BBC.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has been forced to backtrack on efforts to reopen the economy, especially as the resurgent virus pushes public health services to the brink. Most recently, Johnson was forced to curtail plans to relax social-distancing over Christmas.
But tougher restrictions will cause the UK PM more trouble among Conservative Party MPs, many of whom oppose any action that would further damage the economy.
“The government must urgently set out exactly how the vaccination roll-out will translate into a return to normal life for us all in 2021,” said Mark Harper, chairman of a grouping of Tory MPs who oppose curbs on people’s freedoms. The vaccination of the over 65s must mark “a clear threshold for when a substantial relaxation in restrictions can begin,” he said.
That leaves the government in a race against time to get the vaccine administered as fast as possible. Johnson said there is a “massive ramping up operation” going on, and promised “tens of millions” of doses will have been delivered by the end of March.