Boris Johnson has introduced a national lockdown in England until the middle of February, closing schools and colleges and ordering people to stay at home. In a televised address from Downing Street, he said a surge in infections driven by a new, more easily transmissible variant of the virus was putting the National Health Service (NHS) under more pressure than at any time since the start of the pandemic.
“With most of the country already under extreme measures, it is clear that we need to do more, together, to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out. In England, we must therefore go into a national lockdown which is tough enough to contain this variant,” he said.
Under the new lockdown rules, people may leave their homes only for a few specified reasons: to go to work if they absolutely cannot work from home; to shop for essentials; to exercise; to care for vulnerable people; to receive medical attention; or to flee domestic violence. All primary and secondary schools and third-level colleges will close and move to remote learning immediately and this year’s GCSE and A Level exams have been cancelled.
The measures come into law from early Wednesday morning and parliament will meet later that day but the prime minister urged people to follow the new rules immediately. Earlier on Monday, Nicola Sturgeon announced a lockdown in Scotland, with measures coming into force from midnight on Monday similar to those outlined by Mr Johnson.
In a joint statement before the prime minister's televised address, the UK's four chief medical officers said the NHS could be overwhelmed within three weeks unless urgent action is taken.
“Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant. 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,” they said.
There were 26,626 coronavirus patients in hospital in England on Monday, an increase of over 30 per cent over last Monday and 40 per cent above the peak of admissions last April. The case rate in England up to December 30th was over 518 per 100,000 three times the level at the start of December. The case rate in London was over 950 per 100,000.
The lockdown announcement came hours after Britain began rolling out the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and Mr Johnson said that the NHS's "realistic expectation" was that the top four priority groups should receive their first vaccination dose by the middle of February. This would cover all residents in a care home for older adults and their carers, everyone over the age of 70, all frontline health and social care workers, and everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable.
“If we succeed in vaccinating all those groups, we will have removed huge numbers of people from the path of the virus.
And of course, that will eventually enable us to lift many of the restrictions we have endured for so long,” he said.