British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced a new monthly lock-in for England after being warned that without recurrence, a resurgence of coronavirus would overwhelm hospitals in weeks.
The day Britain passed 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, Johnson came with a sudden face, confirming that strict restrictions on business and daily life would begin on Thursday and last until December 2nd.
He said at a TV press conference that “no responsible prime minister” could ignore the grim figures.
“Unless we act, we could see deaths in this country run several thousand a day,” said Johnson, who was hospitalized earlier this year for a serious COVID-19 case.
Under the new restrictions, bars and restaurants can only offer take-out, non-essential stores must close and people will only be able to leave home for a list of reasons, including exercise. Activities ranging from haircuts to foreign holidays need to be put on hold again.
Unlike during the UK’s first three – month shutdown earlier this year, schools, universities, construction sites and manufacturing companies will remain open.
As in other European countries, virus cases in the UK began to rise after locking measures were eased in the summer and people began to return to workplaces, schools, universities and social life.
High demand for hospital beds
Johnson had hoped that a set of regional restrictions introduced earlier in October would be enough to push the number down. But government scientific advisers predict that following the current trajectory of the outbreak, demand for hospital beds will exceed capacity by the first week of December, even if temporary hospitals set up under the virus’ first peak reopen.
Johnson came under increasing pressure to act as researchers warned admissions to COVID-19 and deaths in the UK could soon exceed the levels seen at the outbreak’s spring peak as daily deaths peaked at 1,000. As European countries such as France, Germany and Belgium introduced a second shutdown in the midst of rising caseloads, it seemed inevitable that Johnson would follow suit.
London School of Hygiene epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group, said on Saturday that cases ran “significantly over” a reasonably worst case scenario prepared by modellers.
“It’s really unthinkable now, unfortunately, that we are not counting our deaths in the tens of thousands from this wave,” Edmunds told the BBC. “The problem is, is it going to be low tens of thousands if we take a radical action now, or will it be the high tens of thousands if we do not?”
Number of deaths
Official figures released on Saturday recorded 21,915 new cases confirmed within the last 24 hours, bringing Britain’s total number since the start of the pandemic to 1,011,660. Britain’s coronavirus death toll is 46,555, the highest in Europe, with 326 new deaths reported on Saturday.
The United States, India, Brazil, Russia, France, Spain, Argentina and Colombia have also registered more than 1 million cases, according to a figure from Johns Hopkins University. Researchers say the true number of cases is much higher because not everyone with the virus is tested.
The new measures apply to England. Other parts of the UK introduced their own public health measures, with Wales and Northern Ireland already effective in lockdown and Scotland under a set of tough regional restrictions.
Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Saturday that people in Scotland should not travel to or from England for the time being, “except for essential purposes.”
Lucy Powell, businesswoman for the opposition Labor Party, accused the government of “dithering” and said the country now faces a longer lock than if Johnson had acted faster.
Pressure from conservatives
But Johnson is also under pressure from some members of his Conservative party, who are against stricter restrictions because of the economic damage they cause. Any new blockade must have Parliament’s approval in a vote scheduled for Wednesday.
Owners of businesses that have struggled to get back on their feet since the initial shutdown was eased said the impact of new closures would be devastating.
“People have borrowed bids and spent money to become COVID-safe,” said Kate Nicholls of the pub and restaurant industry group Hospitality UK. “There is no spare capacity in the tank to be able to finance a lockdown, even for three to four weeks. ”
A government program that has paid the salaries of millions of furloughed employees during the pandemic was due to expire on Saturday, but will be extended during the new lockdown.
Johnson had planned to announce a shutdown in Parliament on Monday, but was forced into early action after the Times of London reported the news. The government said there would be an investigation into the leak.
The UK registers more than 20,000 new coronavirus infections a day, and government statisticians say the true figure is far higher. The Office of National Statistics estimated on Friday that 1 in 100 people in England, well over half a million, had the virus in the week to 23 October.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the charity Wellcome Trust and a state adviser, said swift action would avoid many more deaths.
“The best time to act was a month ago, but these are very tough decisions that we all want to avoid,” he tweeted. “The next best time is now.”