The Slatest

London Placed Under Lockdown as U.K. Warns of New, Fast-Spreading COVID-19 Strain

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on December 19, 2020.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on December 19, 2020. TOBY MELVILLE/Getty Images

Only days earlier, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had scoffed at the suggestions that a new lockdown was needed, saying those who were calling for it wanted to “cancel Christmas.” But he backtracked on Saturday saying that a faster-spreading strain of COVID-19 currently making the rounds had forced him to reconsider as he imposed a strict lockdown on London and most of southeast England. “It is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot proceed with Christmas as planned,” Johnson said. The prime minister said the surge in cases “is being driven by the new variant of the virus” that “appears to spread more easily and may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the earlier strain.” Johnson said that after looking at the data he reached the conclusion that there was “no alternative open to me.”

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Earlier, Johnson had planned to allow households to mix for five days during Christmas. But that has now been nixed. Instead, no mixing will be allowed and nonessential stores as well as gyms and movie theaters will have to close from Sunday as part of the lockdown that will be in place for at least two weeks. In other parts of the country, people will be allowed to mix households only on Christmas Day. “When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense,” Johnson said. “Without action the evidence suggests infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.”

The stricter lockdown also meant a recognition that what had been set up as three “tiers” in which parts of the country were divided into areas with different rules had not been sufficient to control the spread of the coronavirus. Now the areas that will be affected by the lockdown will be under a new, stricter fourth tier. Under this new, stricter category, the only time mixing with other households is allowed is if it takes place outdoors and with only a single person. The government is also urging everyone across the country to stay home and not travel. “We’re asking everyone, in all tiers, to stay local,” Johnson said.

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The new strain of the virus is more easily transmissible but “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” Johnson said. Officials have also said there’s no evidence to suggest vaccines are less effective on this new strain. The rate of COVID-19 cases nearly doubled over the past week in London and almost 60 percent of the infections were attributed to the new strain of the virus. “This virus has taken off, it’s moving fast and it’s leading inevitably to a sharp increase in hospital admissions,” Britain’s Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance said.

The new restrictions that affect around a third of England’s population came as Austria and Switzerland both announced new lockdown measures amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections. Austria will go into its third lockdown after Christmas while Switzerland called on people to stay home and ordered bars, restaurants and other spaces for recreation to close for a month starting Tuesday.

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