British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a tighter set of coronavirus controls on millions of people in England on Saturday, 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, 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. “There is no alternative open to me.”
London and southeast England - 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.
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 night at midnight.
Like other countries in Europe, Britain is battling to contain the virus. Johnson’s action comes after concern about a surge in cases, sparked by the new infectious strain of the virus - VUI202012/01.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that while there was no current evidence that this variant of the virus caused a higher mortality rate or impacted vaccines, urgent work was underway to confirm this.
“We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyze the available data to improve our understanding,” Whitty said in a statement.
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.
“We must keep asking ourselves ‘are we doing enough, are we acting quickly enough’.”