England has gone under a new national lockdown as Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday said the UK would remain under restrictions until at least mid-February, to combat a fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus.
The development comes even as Britain ramped up its vaccination program by becoming the first nation to start using the shot developed by Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca. Johnson said people must stay at home again, as they were ordered to do so in the first wave of the pandemic in March, this time because the new virus variant was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” way.
“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” he said in a televised address.
From Tuesday, primary and secondary schools and colleges will be closed for face to face learning except for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils. University students will not be returning until at least mid-February. People were told to work from home unless it’s impossible to do so, and leave home only for essential trips.
All nonessential shops and personal care services like hairdressers will be closed, and restaurants can only operate takeout services.
As of Monday, there were 26,626 COVID-19 patients in hospitals in England, an increase of more than 30% from a week ago. That is 40% above the highest level of the first wave in the spring.
Large areas of England were already under tight restrictions as officials try to control an alarming surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, blamed on a new variant of COVID-19 that is more contagious than existing variants. Authorities have recorded more than 50,000 new infections daily since passing that milestone for the first time on Dec. 29. On Monday, they reported 407 virus-related deaths to push the confirmed death toll total to 75,431, one of the worst in Europe.
The U.K.’s chief medical officers warned that without further action, “there is a material risk of the National Health Service in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
Lockdown in Scotland
Hours earlier, Scotland’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, also imposed a lockdown there with broadly similar restrictions from Tuesday until the end of January.
“I am more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year,” Sturgeon said in Edinburgh.
The announcements came on the day U.K. health authorities began putting the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine into arms around the country, fueling hopes that life may begin returning to normal by the spring.