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The nation’s Christmas plans were plunged into chaos last night after Boris Johnson dramatically abandoned his attempts to avoid tighter Covid restrictions, and instead placed millions of people under new lockdown measures to try to curb a highly infectious new strain of the virus.
In a major U-turn that prompted an immediate backlash from his party, the prime minister placed a third of England’s population under new tier 4 restrictions to counter a Covid strain believed to be up to 70% more transmissible than previous variants.
It means people in a swathe of the south-east and east England and London will not be able to mix with other households at all over Christmas. A stay-at-home message will be enshrined in law, and non-essential shops, as well as indoor leisure and entertainment venues, will close. The measures will be reviewed in two weeks, and significant policing is being planned for New Year’s Eve.
Across the rest of the country, plans for five-day Christmas bubbles of up to three households have been dramatically scaled back. The rules will now only cover Christmas day in England, with Johnson urging all gatherings to be kept short and small.
Speaking from No 10 on Saturday night, the prime minster said that without action “infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives”. He added: “Yes, Christmas this year will be different, very different. We’re sacrificing the chance to see loved ones so we have a better chance of protecting their lives, so we can see them at future Christmases.”
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, urged anyone who was packing a bag ready to leave tier 4: “Please unpack it”. He said the rate of hospital admissions in areas where the variant was prominent was increasing quickly, with tier 3 measures unable to curb the rise in cases. He said anyone travelling despite his advice was creating “a significant risk” of spreading the new strain.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, yesterday introduced a travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK, to remain in place over Christmas. The law will be changed to allow household mixing to a maximum of eight people on Christmas Day only. Wales brought forward its plans for tighter tier 4 restrictions and also restricted Christmas bubbles to Christmas Day. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, warned that evidence suggested the new Covid strain was “present throughout Wales”.
Anyone within England’s tier 4 must not stay overnight away from home, and anyone living elsewhere is advised not to enter a tier 4 area. Those under the new measures can still travel for education and exercise, or work if they cannot work from home. One person can meet another person outside in a public space. Support bubbles for the vulnerable remain in place.
Senior ministers met on Friday to discuss the discovery of the new strain of Covid-19, and a further cabinet meeting was held on Saturday to agree the new measures, which come into force from 00.01am on Sunday.
The decision to rethink Christmas plans comes days after Johnson accused the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, of wanting to “cancel Christmas” after he demanded tighter restrictions. There was anger among Tory MPs last night. Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, called for a vote in parliament. “Lockdowns and increasingly severe tiered restrictions have failed in their goal of slowing the transmission of Covid. And now the government is expecting people to sacrifice the chance to share Christmas with family, friends and loved ones, just a few days after promising the opposite.”
Ministers acted after it emerged 60% of infections in London resulted from the new variant of the virus. There were also concerns that cases in Kent did not fall under the tier 3 measures. While the variant is thought to be more infectious, there is no evidence it has a higher mortality rate, or causes more severe illness or is resistant to vaccines.
Scientists warned that the harsh new measures may eventually have to be introduced across the nation. “We should remember that this strain was increasing rapidly during the last lockdown,” said Professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group. “To prevent it spreading, we will have to impose even tougher restrictions. It is likely the virus has spread much more widely than the south-east, and so measures will have to be in place across large swathes of the UK to have the desired effect.”
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the Observer that the rapid spread of a new genetic variant of the Covid-19 virus had “thrown a spanner in the works” in terms of containing its spread. “We do not know enough yet, but the thing that worries me is that this new variant appeared at a time and place when case numbers were increasing rapidly in secondary school children, mainly in London and the south-east. If this new variant is behind the increase in this age group, then that is a big worry.”
Professor Ravindra Gupta, of Cambridge University, urged that vaccines should be changed to target regions most at risk. “The variant has a number of concerning mutations that mean we should control transmission through social restrictions while we work to learn more about the impact of these mutations on how the virus behaves.We should seriously consider regional targeting of the vaccine.”
Last night’s move follows an outcry from doctors over the previous plans for more relaxed Christmas bubbles. Thousands of frontline doctors sounded the alarm over the five-day mixing rules. Asked about their concerns about the impact of the proposed relaxation, 65% of doctors said they were “extremely concerned”, according to a survey of doctors by the British Medical Association. Thousands responded to the survey. Two fifths said they were not confident about their department’s ability to cope with Covid patients this winter. NHS chiefs warned this weekend of the impact on the health service over the Christmas period. “We’ve talked about a perfect storm,” said Chris Hopson, head of NHS Providers. “I certainly feel that we’re probably headed towards that – and in many places we’ve now reached the leading edge of that storm.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Johnson U-turn leaves nation’s plans for Christmas in tatters | Coronavirus