British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has abandoned his regional approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and imposed a four-week lockdown to slow the country’s alarming surge in infections.
Mr. Johnson announced on Saturday that all pubs, restaurants, recreation centres and non-essential stores will close from Thursday to Dec. 2. People must also work from home if possible and households will not be able to mix in any setting. However, Mr. Johnson said that unlike the lockdown in March, schools, colleges and universities will remain open. Premier League soccer games can also continue behind closed doors.
“Now is the time to take action because there is no alternative,” Mr. Johnson said during a nationally televised news conference. “Unless we act we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day.”
Mr. Johnson had resisted imposing a lockdown for weeks and stuck to a regional strategy that included a three-tiered alert system. But his approach led to squabbles with municipal leaders about compensation for businesses and differing levels of restrictions that caused public confusion. Meanwhile infections soared and health experts repeatedly called for a national lockdown.
Britain now has one of the worst outbreaks of the disease in Europe. Cases have been doubling weekly and government figures show that more than 50,000 people are being infected every day, and the number keeps rising. There have also been just over 61,000 deaths due to COVID-19.
There’s little sign the situation is improving. Hospital admissions have risen sharply and some hospitals are treating more patients now than when the pandemic started last spring. A report released on Friday by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, also warned that the daily death toll matched the committee’s worst case scenario, which predicted 85,000 deaths over winter. “If we did not act now, then the chances of the [National Health Service] being in extraordinary trouble in December would be very very high,” said England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.
On Saturday Mr. Johnson defended his regional strategy and said the country would return to the various alert levels on Dec. 2. “Lives must come first but we must be mindful of the scarring long-term economic impact of the measures we’re obliged to introduce,” he said. He added that the tiered system was “right and rational” and that it would have worked had the virus remained in check. “We’ve got to be humble in the face of nature,” he said. “I am optimistic this will feel very different and better by spring…We will get through this, but we must act now to contain this autumn surge.”
Britain is following several other European countries which have also introduced tougher restrictions to stem the rise in infections. France, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Austria and Germany have recently imposed full or partial lockdowns for November.
Many British healthcare experts welcomed the government’s announcement but some worried that it still might not be enough. “Yet again, the U.K. has been slow to act, delaying decisive action until the last moment,” said Stephen Griffin, an associate professor in the school of medicine at the University of Leeds. “It is difficult to know how long it might take to reverse the growth of the new wave of infection”.
It’s also not clear how the restrictions will be greeted by the public. The government received overwhelming support for the lockdown in March but that backing has faded somewhat. Mr. Johnson is also facing a growing revolt from fellow Conservative Members of Parliament who have opposed a lockdown. The new set of measures will be put to a vote in Parliament on Monday and while the Conservatives have a large majority, Mr. Johnson will likely face some tough questions from Tory backbenchers.
There’s also confusion about whether the entire country will follow the same rules. Britain doesn’t have a formal constitution but regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been given some powers, including over healthcare. As a result many have taken a different approach to the pandemic and Mr. Johnson can only control what happens in England.
Wales has already imposed a two-week lockdown which is slated to end on Nov. 9. Northern Ireland has closed pubs, restaurants and hairdressers for four weeks but kept shops open. Scotland has introduced a four level alert system and closed pubs and restaurants in the Glasgow area. Mr. Johnson said all of the governments have been working closely to tackle the virus but he couldn’t say if the entire country will go into a lockdown.
The conflicting restrictions worry some experts who say only a national strategy will work. “The measures have to be UK-wide to be effective enough,” said Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, a U.K.-based charity that funds medical research. “While the rates may be different across the U.K., the virus is escalating in every area. And those areas which are not yet in crisis will in fact benefit most from greater restrictions now, before the virus gets out of control locally.”