Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed an effective lockdown on over 16 million people in England and reversed plans to ease curbs over the coming week, saying Britain was dealing with a new coronavirus strain up to 70% more transmissible than the original.
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, he said on Saturday the government had to take urgent action.
The number of cases in England has soared in the last two weeks because of the virus variant.
Johnson tore up plans to allow three households to mix indoors for five days, 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, similar to those of a recent national lockdown.
People in Tier 4 – 16.4 million and 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 midnight on Saturday.
Johnson, whose initial response to the pandemic has been criticized for being too slow, had initially resisted calls to change plans for the relaxation.
However, those now in Tier 4 will not be allowed to mix with others this week.
Business leaders said the government needed to provide emergency financial support.
“The consequences of this decision will be severe,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.
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, taking the total to over two million, and 534 more deaths, taking the overall official toll to more than 67,000.
There has been a surge in infections 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 authorities had alerted the World Health Organization and were continuing to analyze the data.
“There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” Johnson said. “There’s no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant.”
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.