UK Prime Minister imposes harsh lockdown as new Covid-19 variant spreads

Originally Published: 04 JAN 21 15:39 ET

Updated: 04 JAN 21 16:14 ET

"It is clear that we need to do more to bring this new variant under control," Johnson said. "That means the government is once again instructing you to stay at home."

During his televised address to the nation, Johnson reimposed measures seen during the first lockdown last spring, including closures of secondary and primary schools to all except the children of key workers and vulnerable children. People will be allowed to leave their homes for limited reasons like shopping for essentials, exercise, and medical assistance.

Johnson also said people could still leave home "to escape domestic abuse" -- an issue that arose earlier during the pandemic, as isolation and lockdown conditions exacerbated barriers to escape for victims of domestic violence.

Outdoor sports venues will have to close. But unlike spring's lockdown, nurseries will not be shuttered, elite sports can go ahead, and places of worship will remain open on the basis that attendees adhere to social distancing rules.

The lockdown is expected to remain in place at least through the middle of February.

Hours before, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a lockdown that will begin at midnight, Tuesday, local time. Wales and Northern Ireland -- the other nations of the UK -- are already in lockdown.

The UK is back in crisis mode as new daily Covid-19 cases soared above 50,000 cases for nearly a week, and hospitalizations exceed April's peak.

According to Johnson, there was 30% more Covid-19 patients in hospitals in England on Monday than a week earlier.

UK Chief Medical Officers and the NHS England Medical Director have advised that the country enter the highest coronavirus alert level for the first time in the pandemic, he added. The measure is in response to hospitalizations that could overwhelm the country's National Health Service (NHS) in the next 21 days.

"Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure. There are currently very high rates of community transmission, with substantial numbers of COVID patients in hospitals and in intensive care," UK Chief Medical Officers said in a statement on Monday.

"We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days," UK Chief Medical Officers said, adding that the new variant, believed to have originated in the UK, has led to rising cases "almost everywhere."

Mounting anger

Johnson's announcement follows mounting calls from public health experts, teachers' unions and lawmakers for a more stringent lockdown.

British teachers unions criticized the "chaotic reopening" of schools this week, "while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic," the Educations unions' joint statement said.

Students in the UK were due to return to school from the Christmas break on Monday. But less than a week ago, the government announced the return to school would be delayed by two weeks for almost all high-schoolers and some primary (elementary) school children. Learning will move online.

UK opposition leader Keir Starmer impored Johnson to take tougher measures to tackle the surge "ideally today," he told CNN affiliate ITV News, adding that Britain's tiered system approach to restrictions "isn't working.'

Ruling Conservative party lawmaker Jeremy Hunt, who was the former health secretary, said it was "time to act" ahead of Johnson's speech. "We need to close schools, borders, and ban all household mixing RIGHT AWAY," he wrote.

The UK government is pinning its hopes for a route out of this disaster through its Covid-19 vaccination program, which began last month. But the country is a long way from vaccinating the millions in the top priority groups mentioned by Johnson, including people "over the age of 70, all frontline health workers and everyone who is clinically vulnerable,"

Johnson suggests those groups are expected to have been offered their first doses by mid-February. But since the beginning of December, when the UK became the first in the world to administer the clinically approved Pfizer/BionTech vaccaine, more than 1 million people have received the immunization, according to a government press release.

"Thanks to the miracle of science, not only is the end in sight, but we know exactly how we will get there. But for now we must, I am afraid, stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives," Johnson said as he concludied his speech on Monday.

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