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Wary of new Covid variant, UK's Johnson imposes tighter curbs on millions

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference in response to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus pandemic (Reuters)Premium
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference in response to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus pandemic (Reuters)

  • UK PM reverses plans to ease Covid-19 rules over Christmas as new Covid-19 strain looks more infectious
  • London and southeast England in new higher tier of restrictions; 18 mn people in England told to stay at home from Sunday morning

While announcing new Tier 4 level of restrictions for London and areas of southeast England, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday said the new variant of coronavirus could be up to 70% more transmissable than earlier version.

"I have been briefed on data which shows virus spreading more rapidly in parts of England, driven by new variant," he said.

With the average number of cases in England soaring because of a new, more contagious strain of the virus, Johnson said the government had to take urgent action.

"I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year...I know how disappointing this will be," Johnson told a news conference. "There is no alternative open to me."

Johnson said government’s scientific advisors said the new variant appears to spread more easily.

People in Tier 4 cannot mix with anyone outside their household and must stay at home and cannot stay away from home overnight.

"With the new variant, we cannot continue with Christmas as planned," said Johnson.

People 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.

Those in Tier 4 will not be allowed to mix with others over Christmas. And all others will now only be allowed to see friends and family for one day.

The new rules will come into effect from Saturday night at midnight.

After emergency talks with his most senior officials, Johnson canceled plans to ease pandemic restrictions for five days during the holiday.

The premier announced a new Tier 4 will apply in the hot-spot areas around the capital from Sunday, with all non-essential shops closing, millions of people ordered to stay at home and all foreign travel banned except for essential purposes. Johnson urged people across England to “stay local" and not travel far. He promised the new rules will be reviewed on Dec. 30.

“When the virus changes its method of attack we must change our method of defense," Johnson said at a news conference. “Without action the evidence suggests infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives."

The dramatic escalation in the government’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 strain 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.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that the new variant was faster spreading, and likely behind the alarming climb of case numbers in that part of the country.

London now has the highest case rates in England, and this week moved under the highest level of coronavirus restrictions in the country’s three-tier alert system. Most of southern England joined the capital in an expansion of Tier 3 rules Saturday, meaning a total of 38 million people — or 68% of England’s population — are living under the toughest rules.

Under the restrictions, people cannot socialize indoors or in most outdoor places, and restaurants and pubs only can offer takeaway service. Shops remain open, however.

Britain reported 27,052 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday and 534 deaths. The reproduction "R" number is estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.2, meaning the number of cases is rapidly increasing.

"Failing to act decisively now, will mean further suffering," Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said on Twitter.

Britain has been one of the worst hit European countries - with more than 67,000 deaths linked to coronavirus and more than 2 million cases reported.

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