British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced a new month-long lockdown for England after being warned that without tough action a resurgent coronavirus outbreak will overwhelm hospitals in weeks.
On the day the U.K. passed one million confirmed COVID-19 cases, Johnson made a sudden about-face and confirmed that stringent restrictions on business and daily life would begin Thursday and last until Dec. 2.
He said at a news conference that “no responsible prime minister” could ignore the grim figures.
“Unless we act, we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day,” said Johnson, who was hospitalized earlier this year for a serious case of COVID-19.
Under the new restrictions, restaurants can only offer takeout, non-essential shops must close and people will only be able to leave home for a short list of reasons including exercise. Activities ranging from haircuts to foreign holidays must once again be put on hold.
Unlike during the U.K.’s first three-month lockdown earlier this year, schools, universities, construction sites and manufacturing businesses will stay open.
As in other European countries, virus cases in the U.K. began to climb after lockdown measures were eased in the summer and people began to return to workplaces, schools, universities and social life.
Johnson had hoped a set of regional restrictions introduced earlier in October would be enough to push numbers down. But government scientific advisers predict that on the outbreak’s current trajectory, demand for hospital beds will exceed capacity by the first week of December, even if temporary hospitals set up during the first peak of the virus are reopened.
Johnson came under mounting pressure to act as scientists warned COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the U.K. could soon surpass the levels seen at the outbreak’s spring peak, when daily deaths topped 1,000. As European countries such as France, Germany and Belgium began imposing a second lockdown amid surging caseloads, it looked inevitable that Johnson would have to follow.
London School of Hygiene epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group, said Saturday that cases were running “significantly above” a reasonable worst-case scenario drawn up by modelers.
“It is really unthinkable now, unfortunately, that we don’t count our deaths in tens of thousands from this wave,” Edmunds told the BBC. “The issue is, is that going to be low tens of thousands if we take radical action now or is that going to be the high tens of thousands if we don’t?”
Official figures announced Saturday recorded 21,915 new cases confirmed in the last 24 hours, bringing Britain’s total since the start of the pandemic to 1,011,660. Britain’s death toll from the coronavirus is 46,555, the highest in Europe, with 326 new deaths announced Saturday.
The United States, India, Brazil, Russia, France, Spain, Argentina and Colombia have also recorded more than 1 million cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Scientists 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 U.K. set their own public health measures, with Wales and Northern Ireland already effectively in lockdown and Scotland under a set of tough regional restrictions.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Saturday that for now people in Scotland should not travel to or from England, “except for essential purposes.”
Lucy Powell, business spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, accused the government of “dithering” and said the country was now facing a longer lockdown than if Johnson had acted sooner.
But Johnson is also under pressure from some members of his Conservative Party, who oppose tighter restrictions because of the economic damage they cause. Any new lockdown will need Parliament’s approval in a vote scheduled for Wednesday.
Owners of businesses that have struggled to get back on their feet since the first lockdown was eased said the impact of new closures would be devastating.
“People have borrowed up to the hilt and spent money in order to get COVID-secure,” said Kate Nicholls of restaurant industry group Hospitality U.K. “There is no spare capacity in the tank to be able to fund a lockdown, even for three to four weeks.”
A government program that has paid the wages of millions of furloughed employees during the pandemic was due to end Saturday, but will be extended during the new lockdown.
Johnson had planned to announce the lockdown 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 U.K. is recording more than 20,000 new coronavirus infections a day, and government statisticians say the true figure is far higher. The Office for National Statistics estimated Friday that one in 100 people in England, well over half a million, had the virus in the week to Oct. 23.
Jeremy Farrar, director of medical research charity the Wellcome Trust and a government adviser, said swift action would avoid many more deaths.
“The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid,” he tweeted. “The second-best time is now.”