UK PM imposes tighter curbs amid confirmation of new COVID strain

UK PM imposes tighter curbs amid confirmation of new COVID strain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has imposed a tighter set of coronavirus controls on millions of people in England, 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, significantly 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 on Saturday. “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.


A new strain of coronavirus is up to 70 percent more infectious but it is not thought to be more deadly and vaccines should still be effective, Johnson and scientists said.


“There’s no evidence that it 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.


‘Rapid spread’


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 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.”


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.


Wales and Northern Ireland, which have their own devolved governments and independent rules for controlling the virus, have already announced fresh lockdowns once Christmas is over.


A source 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 a 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.”