London: Boris Johnson imposed a full lockdown on London and southeast England in a desperate attempt to stop a new coronavirus strain spreading rapidly over the U.K.
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty confirmed Saturday that a new coronavirus strain which surfaced in the country could spread faster and called for greater public vigilance to reduce transmission. Whitty said London had informed the World Health Organization of its findings.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday said scientists had identified a “new variant” in the south of England that could be causing infections to spread faster.
“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East (an expert body advising the government) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly,” Whitty said.
“We have alerted the World Health Organization,” he said, but added: ‘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.”
After emergency talks on the virus mutation with his top officials, the prime minister canceled his plan to ease pandemic rules for five days during the holiday. Household mixing will be banned in London and the south-east and socializing restricted to just Christmas Day across the rest of England. Residents across the country were told to stay in their local areas.
The premier announced a new top tier of pandemic curbs will be brought in for the hot-spot regions around the capital from Sunday, with all non-essential shops closing and millions of people ordered to stay at home.
"When the virus changes its method of attack we must change our method of defense," Johnson said at a news conference Saturday. "Without action the evidence suggests infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives."
The new measures will be a major blow to retail businesses at what is usually their busiest time of year. The U.K. has already suffered its deepest recession since the Great Frost of 1709 and ministers have been forced to extend crisis loans and wage support programs amid fears that unemployment will rocket.
The dramatic escalation in Johnson's pandemic response was triggered by a new strain of the virus that is virtually unique to the U.K. Emerging scientific evidence suggests the new variant can spread significantly more quickly than previous strains in circulation and is behind a huge surge in infections in recent days.
Covid-19 case rates nearly doubled in London over the past week, with almost 60% of these infections attributed to the new strain of the virus, according to government officials. Existing Tier 3 measures in the county of Kent - the toughest rules in place at the moment - have failed to stop the spread. That led Johnson to introduce a new top level of infection controls, Tier 4.
England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that the new variant was faster spreading, and likely behind the alarming climb of case numbers around the capital and southeast of the country.
"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," Whitty said. "Given this latest development it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission."
As recently as Friday, Johnson refused to rule out a third U.K. lockdown to control the spread of the virus. Britain joined Italy and Austria in tightening curbs during the holiday season, with all three countries facing rapidly rising case numbers.
The situation has deteriorated dramatically across Europe, with French President Emmanuel Macron contracting the illness and countries like Italy and Germany introducing new measures during the festive period.
Leaders are also grappling with another set of challenges just as vaccines are being rolled out.
Viruses tend to evolve or mutate quickly, particularly those like flu that require new vaccines to be developed each year because of changes in key proteins. SARS-CoV-2 also changes, although generally at a slower pace than some other viruses because it has a self-correcting mechanism that keeps its genetic sequence relatively stable.
Other variants in the coronavirus have been reported in the past, including one in minks, which are susceptible to the virus. That was feared to be highly transmissible and was reported to the World Health Organization. Millions of farmed mink were culled, although as of Nov. 20 the WHO said the most worrying strain linked to the animals is no longer circulating in humans.
Tough new restrictions
Boris Johnson announced tough new restrictions and social distancing measures for London and nearby areas on Saturday in an attempt to slow the spread of a new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus.
Following is a summary of the new restrictions.
NEW TIER 4
⦿ London and parts of the south east and east of England currently in the highest Tier 3 category will enter a new Tier 4 level of restrictions, roughly equivalent to England's lockdown in November.
⦿ Residents in Tier 4 areas must stay at home, apart from limited exemptions.
⦿ Non-essential retail, indoor gyms and leisure facilities, and personal care services must close.
⦿ People must work from home if possible, but may travel to work if necessary, for example in construction and manufacturing.
⦿ People should not enter or leave Tier 4 areas and residents must not stay overnight away from home.
⦿ Individuals can only meet one person from another household in an outdoor public space.
⦿ Communal worship can continue to take place.
⦿ The measures will take effect from Sunday morning.
⦿ A next formal review of the tiers system is due to take place on Dec. 30.
⦿ The government has asked people across the United Kingdom to stay local and consider whether they need to travel abroad.
⦿ People in Tier 4 areas will not be permitted to travel abroad apart from limited exceptions, such as for work.
⦿ People in Tier 4 areas should not mix with anyone outside their own household, but "support bubbles" will remain in place for those at particular risk of loneliness or isolation.
⦿ Across the rest of the UK, rules allowing up to three households to meet will be limited to Christmas Day only, rather than the five days previously set out.
⦿ There will be no relaxation on Dec 31, as previously announced.