British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has abandoned his regional approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and imposed a four-week lockdown in England to slow the country’s alarming rate of infection.
Mr. Johnson announced on Saturday that all pubs, restaurants, recreation centres and non-essential stores in England will close from Thursday to Dec. 2. Leisure travel has been banned and people must work from home if possible. 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.”
On Sunday, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the lockdown could be extended if daily infections don’t fall substantially. “We want to be in a position where we can – and I believe that this is likely to be the case – have an approach where if we bring down the rate of infection sufficiently, we can reduce measures nationally and also reduce measures regionally,” Mr. Gove told Sky TV.
Mr. Johnson had resisted imposing a lockdown for weeks and he stuck to a regional strategy that included a three-tiered alert system. His approach led to squabbles with municipal leaders about compensation for businesses and differing levels of restrictions that caused public confusion. Meanwhile, the number of cases 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 more than 61,000 deaths owing 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 last 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 the 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,” England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, said Saturday.
During his press conference, Mr. Johnson defended his regional strategy and said England would return to the various alert levels after the lockdown. “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.
Britain is following several other European countries that have also introduced tougher restrictions. France, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Austria and Germany have recently imposed full or partial lockdowns for November. The Italian government is also expected to tighten its measures on Monday.
Many British health care experts welcomed the government’s announcement, but some worried that it 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. A YouGov poll on the weekend found 72-per-cent support for the new restrictions, but that was down from 93 per cent who backed the lockdown last March.
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 early this week, and while the Conservatives have a large majority, Mr. Johnson will face tough questions from Tory backbenchers. “It will take a great deal to persuade me to vote for this madness,” Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne told BBC on Sunday.
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 health care. 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.
The conflicting restrictions worry some experts who say only a national strategy will work. “The measures have to be U.K.-wide to be effective enough,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a British-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.”
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