Well being minister says harder UK coronavirus curbs could take a while
© Reuters. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in London
By Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) – London and south-east England could stay under tighter curbs for coronavirus for some time, the UK Health Secretary suggested on Sunday, adding that a rapidly spreading new strain was forcing the government to drop plans to ease restrictions for Christmas to let.
The government has been criticized for effectively banning more than 16 million people a few days before Christmas. However, Matt Hancock said Saturday’s decision was taken quickly after new evidence showed the new tribe was responsible for the spiral of COVID-19 cases.
The variant, which according to official information is up to 70% more transferable than the original, also gave cause for concern about a wider distribution. Several European countries, including Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, said they are taking measures to prevent people from arriving from the UK, including flight and train bans.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson abruptly tore open plans to allow three households to mingle indoors for five days during the festive period and imposed new level 4 curbs on London and south-east England – similar to a national lockdown in March.
Hancock suggested that the stricter measures, which require about a third of the population of England to stay at home except for essential reasons such as work, could remain in place until vaccinations became widely available.
“We still have a long way to go to sort this out,” Hancock told Sky News.
“Essentially, we need to bring this vaccine in to keep people safe. Given how much faster this new variant is spreading, it will be very difficult to keep it under control until we get the vaccine in.”
Britain started vaccinating people with that of Pfizer (NYSE 🙂 and BioNTech earlier this month.
Like other countries in Europe, the UK is struggling to contain new waves of the virus. The number of cases in the UK rose by 35,928 on Sunday, the highest daily increase since the pandemic began, with 326 deaths recorded, bringing the official toll to more than 67,000.
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said at a press conference that although he supported the new measures, “the prime minister again waited until the 11th hour to make this decision.”
“The alarm bells have been ringing for weeks, but the Prime Minister has decided to ignore them … He told the country to have a Merry Christmas … and yet three days later he is urging millions of families to tear up these plans” he said, referring to comments Johnson made on Wednesday.
Shortly after Johnson announced the changes on Saturday afternoon, some went to train stations in London to try to travel to relatives over Christmas and there were scenes of crowds – something Hancock described as “completely irresponsible”.
The new rules came into force on Sunday.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people not to travel under the new restrictions. More UK traffic cops have been deployed to ensure that “only those who need to make essential travel can travel safely,” he said in a statement.
The other British nations, whose response to the pandemic is different from England’s, have also taken action. Scotland imposed a travel ban on the rest of the UK, effectively closing the border, and Christmas relief will only be limited to December 25th.
All of Wales will join Tier 4 from midnight, but two households may mingle on Christmas Day.
Non-essential retail stores as well as places like gyms and hair salons have closed in Tier 4 areas, and some companies have called the new measures a “real kick in the teeth”.
Hancock said the government recognized that the economic impact of the new measures would be “severe” but that it must weigh it against the health consequences.
Other countries, including South Africa, have also identified a new variant of the coronavirus.
An epidemiologist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, Emma Hodcroft, said on Twitter that the pressures in the UK and South Africa are not the same.