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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson put England back in lockdown on Monday, in a bid to combat soaring coronavirus infection numbers that are putting the National Health Service at risk.
Reprising the message from last March, Johnson implemented the third set of national restrictions, meaning Brits will be stuck at home — with schools and non-essential shops closed — for around six weeks, as the other U.K. nations are implementing similar measures.
“I want to say to everyone right across the U.K. that I know how tough this is and I know how frustrated you are and I know you have had more than enough of government guidance about defeating this virus,” Johnson said in a televised address. “But now more than ever we must pull together.”
He said the nation needed to step up its response to bring the new COVID variant that has run rampant across the country under control.
Earlier on Monday, the chief medical officers of all four U.K. nations recommended the nationwide COVID alert level move from level 4 to level 5 — the first time it has hit its most severe level.
“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 over the next 21 days,” the group declared.
The threat to the NHS is stark: There were 26,626 coronavirus patients in English hospitals on Monday, an increase of 30 percent on the same day the week before.
The peak of hospital admissions during the first wave of the virus was 18,974 — 40 percent lower than the current number. The case rate stands at over 518 per 100,000 in England.
Epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies committee, told the BBC it was highly likely the U.K.’s overall death toll would now exceed 100,000. “Total numbers of deaths will be, unfortunately, measured now in those sorts of numbers: 100,000 or more,” he said.
‘Inconvenience and distress’
Under the new rules, people will be expected to remain at home, except for in specific circumstances such as shopping for essentials, exercise or if working from home is impossible.
Schools will remain closed for most children — although early years settings, nurseries and special schools can remain open — with the knock-on effect on exams currently unclear.
“I completely understand the inconvenience and distress this late change will cause millions of parents and pupils around the country,” Johnson said about the school closures, following days of uncertainty that saw some institutions open Monday morning despite opposition from teachers’ unions.
Non-essential retail, hospitality and personal care services will need to close, as will zoos. Food delivery will be allowed, but not takeaway alcohol.
Garden centers and places of worship will remain open, while elite sports will continue. The most vulnerable people, such as those with serious medical conditions, are expected to shield at home.
The restrictions will remain in place until mid-February.
The light at the end of the tunnel is the vaccination rollout. It was given a boost on Monday when the first person in the world, 82-year-old Brian Pinker, received the newly authorized Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.
Johnson said the vaccines were the “huge difference” compared with the first national lockdown announced in March 2020. “We are rolling out the biggest vaccination program in our history,” he said, adding that by mid-February the top four priority groups, including care home residents, over-70s and frontline health workers, could have received the jabs “if things go well and with a fair wind.”
One senior government figure said the nation was “doomed” to be locked down until the vaccines are more fully rolled out. “Until we can get to a position where enough of the population is vaccinated there is no choice, unfortunately,” the official said. “We have just got to suck this up for another six or eight weeks and then we can maybe start to take the brakes off.”
Support in polls
The U.K. House of Commons will be recalled on Wednesday to allow MPs to debate and vote on the new England-wide measures.
But House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle urged MPs not to physically attend the sitting “unless absolutely necessary due to the severe public health situation.”
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said his MPs would back the government. “The situation we are in is obviously very serious, the figures are very stark and these measures are necessary, sadly,” he told the BBC in the wake of the announcement.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Monday announced new measures to come in at midnight, including a new legal requirement to stay at home for all but essential purposes and the closure of schools to the majority of pupils until February.
In Wales, Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced that all schools and colleges will move to online learning until January 18, adding: “The situation in Wales and across the UK remains very serious.”
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster meanwhile convened ministers in the nation to discuss the national response.
Johnson can, it seems, count on public support for the new measures, as can his counterparts in the three other nations. A YouGov poll of 1,592 people conducted on Monday found 79 percent support for the U.K. entering another national lockdown, with just 16 percent opposed.
Throughout the crisis, despite a fierce political debate over the wisdom of lockdowns, polls have shown the U.K. public have been broadly supportive of strict measures to contain the spread of the virus.