England enters lockdown that could run until March

by Anna MALPAS, with Stuart GRAHAM in Edinburgh /AFP

LONDON – Britain toughened its coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday, with England and Scotland going into another full lockdown, as a new variant spreads.

Surging numbers of positive cases, and fears the a new variant of the virus is running out of control, prompted tougher action, which includes shutting schools, and a ban on leaving home except for essential shopping, medical reasons or exercise.

A total of 58,784 people tested positive in the UK on Monday, with cases in the last seven days up 50 percent on the previous week.

Overall, Britain has been among the worst hit in the world by the outbreak, with some 2.7 million cases and more than 75,000 deaths.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told Sky News on Tuesday he could not say precisely when the lockdown would be lifted, warning of “very, very difficult weeks” ahead.

The measures will be reviewed from February 15, he said, but the government cannot “predict with certainty” whether they will be lifted then.

“I think it is right to say that as we enter March, we should be able to lift some of these restrictions but not necessarily all,” he added.

The measures began in England on Tuesday morning and will become law after a vote in parliament on Wednesday morning.

Scotland’s lockdown will last at least until the end of this month, while Wales and Northern Ireland have also toughened existing restrictions.

‘No way around it’

The lockdown comes as the surge of a new strain of the virus said to be 50 to 70 percent more infectious threatens to overwhelm the state health service, with almost 24,000 currently hospitalised in the UK.

But the rollout of two vaccines, including the UK’s own Oxford University/AstraZeneca shot from Monday, has brought hopes of beating the virus in the coming months.

Opinion polls suggested a majority of the public support the new lockdown and the closure of schools, despite criticism the government had been too slow to respond.

In London and Edinburgh, only a few people were walking through central streets past closed shops and cafés, according to AFP reporters.

“I’m perfectly fine with it,” Jenny Heath, 42, who works in marketing, told AFP in central London.

“There’s no way around it and it’s just a short-term solution to ease what’s happening in the NHS (National Health Service).”

“They are never going to get a handle on this virus until everybody is in total lockdown,” added 69-year-old Patricia Cairns in Edinburgh.

Supermarkets step in

The UK has already vaccinated over one million people, while Johnson has said all those most at risk —  some 13 million people — could be vaccinated by mid-February.

Calls are mounting for the vaccination drive to be speeded up, to allow a return to normality.

“It should be possible to reach daily vaccination levels of 300,000 to 500,000 doses per day,” said Professor Nilay Shah, head of department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London. 

Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco has offered assistance that could include refrigerated lorries to distribute the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which can be kept at normal fridge temperatures.

Another supermarket chain, Morrisons, said three of its carparks would be used for vaccinations. High street pharmacy chain Boots is also to administer jabs.

– Business bail out-
Finance minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday announced £4.6 billion ($6.3 billion, 5.1 billion euros) in extra funding for hard-hit retail, hospitality and leisure businesses which have been forced to close again.

Schoolchildren will not sit crucial end-of-year exams needed to enter higher education as usual, Gove said, promising as-yet unspecified “alternative arrangements”.

He also said the UK could impose new restrictions on international travel. 

Currently quarantine is compulsory for those arriving from some countries but not virus testing. New proposals will be announced “very shortly”, said Gove.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been widely criticised for hesitating too long about the measures, particularly school closures.

“I think the inability of the government to act decisively and to convey clear messages and have a clear strategy has been an enormous disappointment to teachers,” Jerry Glazier, spokesman of the National Education Union for teachers.