London, December 20
A surge in the infection rate caused by a new variant of coronavirus has led to millions entering a stringent new stay-at-home lockdown in the UK from Sunday, with non-essential shops and businesses now closed.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new rules at a briefing from 10 Downing Street on Saturday evening, which means a planned five-day “Christmas bubble” of relaxed rules has been cancelled in favour of a new Tier 4 level to the current three-tier lockdown system to try and control the surge in infections being caused by the new mutation of the deadly virus.
“It seems that the spread is now being driven by the new variant of the virus,” Johnson said.
“We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding,” said Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England.
“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 underway to confirm this,” he said.
The state-funded National Health Service (NHS) is set to vaccinate people against the coronavirus on Christmas Day as part of a drive to accelerate the number of inoculations nationally, according to ‘The Sunday Times’.
More than 100,000 Pfizer jabs have been booked at general practitioner (GP) surgeries and hospital hubs across the country for the coming week.
Under the new Tier 4, people would be banned from mixing with anyone outside of their household, including on Christmas Day, and for the other tiers, Christmas rules allowing up to three households will now be limited to Christmas Day of December 25 only, rather than five days. The changes will last for two weeks with the first review now due on December 30.
The new restrictions – similar to the second national lockdown which ended in November – applies to all areas in the South East which were in tier three, covering Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.
It also applies in London and the East of England – Bedford, Central Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire and Essex. In Wales, the restrictions were brought forward pre-Christmas to also begin right away.
“We are sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so we have a better chance of protecting their lives so that we can see them at future Christmases,” he said, adding that he “bitterly regretted” have to make these changes.
The UK PM said there is no evidence to suggest vaccines would be any less effective against the new variant but that it was required to act fast to try and control its acceleration.
“Our advisers on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) have spent the last few days analysing this new variant – there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality but it does appear to be passed on significantly more quickly,” he said.
Non-essential shops, gyms, cinemas, hairdressers and bowling alleys will be forced to close for two weeks, while people will be restricted to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
Johnson added: “I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year, and how important it is, for instance, for grandparents to see their grandchildren, for families to be together.
“So I know how disappointing this will be. But we have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science. When the science changes, we must change our response.” The Opposition Labour Party of causing “heartbreak” for millions by not acting in time.
“I think the Prime Minister should apologise. This is not just one mistake when he has otherwise got things right. It is the same mistake over and over again,” said Sir Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition.
“At the heart of the problem here is a Prime Minister who simply doesn’t want to be unpopular and therefore won’t take the tough decisions that are necessary, until he is forced into them at the 11th hour. We can’t go on like that,” he said. — PTI