LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday imposed tighter coronavirus curbs on millions of people in England and largely reversed plans to ease restrictions over Christmas, as the country battles a new more infectious strain of the virus.
The number of cases in England has soared in the last two weeks because of a variant of the virus that scientists said is up to 70% more transmissible.
Although Johnson and his scientific advisors believe vaccines will still be effective, and the new strain is not more deadly or more serious in terms of the illness caused, the prime minister said the government had to take urgent action.
He tore up plans to allow three households to mix indoors for five days over the festive period and said London and southeast England, which are currently in the highest level of a three-tier system of rules, would now be placed in a new Tier 4 level.
“It is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” Johnson told a news conference. “I sincerely believe there is no alternative open to me.”
People in Tier 4, about a third of the population of England, 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.
The new rules will come into effect from Saturday night at midnight.
Johnson, whose initial response to the pandemic has been criticised for being too slow, had resisted calls to change plans for the Christmas relaxation, saying on Wednesday it would be “frankly inhuman” to ban it.
However, those now in Tier 4 will not be allowed to mix with others over Christmas. And everyone else in England will now be allowed to see friends and family only on Christmas Day itself, Dec. 25.
“Millions will be heartbroken by this news, having their Christmas plans ripped up with less than a week’s notice,” opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said on Twitter.
“At this time of national crisis, the British people want clear, decisive leadership. All we get from Boris Johnson is confusion and indecision.”
The UK’s other nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have imposed different lockdown rules over the course of the pandemic.
Scotland said on Saturday it would impose a ban on travel to the rest of the United Kingdom, and the Christmas easing would be limited to just Dec. 25.
The Welsh first minister said all of Wales would go into Tier 4 from midnight, but two households could mix on Christmas Day.
Like other countries in Europe, Britain is battling to contain new waves of the virus. It reported 27,052 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday and 534 deaths, and there has been growing concern about a surge in infections and hospitalisations in the last two weeks, sparked by the new virus strain – VUI202012/01.
“This virus has taken off, it’s moving fast and it’s leading inevitably to a sharp increase in hospital admissions,” Britain’s Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance said.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the existing tier system was working in areas with a very low level of the new variant, but cases were rising fast in places where it was prominent.
Whitty said authorities had alerted the World Health Organization and were continuing to analyse the available data to improve their understanding of the new strain.
“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” Johnson said.
Britain has been one of the worst hit European countries – with more than 67,000 deaths linked to coronavirus and more than 2 million cases reported.
Other countries have also reported variants of the virus. South Africa said on Friday one such strain was driving a second wave of infections there.
“We think it (the variant) may be in other countries as well,” Vallance said. “It may have started here, we don’t know for sure.”