LONDON – Millions of people are due to cancel their Christmas meetings and most shops are to close in London and much of southern England, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday as he imposed a new, stricter level of coronavirus restrictions in the region to rapidly reduce the spread of infections associated with a mutant strain of the virus.
“It is with a very heavy heart that I have to tell you that we cannot make Christmas as planned,” Johnson said.
Johnson said on Saturday that the capital and larger areas of southern England already placed at the highest level of the UK government’s three-tier coronavirus alert system would move to a new Level 4 which would oblige all non-essential stores, hairdressers and indoor recreation areas to close. after the end of working hours on Saturday.
A few days before Christmas, Johnson also announced that a planned relaxation of socialization rules that would have allowed up to three households to meet in “Christmas bubbles” from December 23 to December 27, will be canceled for the zones. level 4 and greatly reduced in the rest of England.
He said he concluded that there was “no alternative available to me” and that people have to sacrifice this Christmas to have a better chance of protecting the lives of their loved ones.
No mixing of households will be allowed at level 4 except under very limited conditions outside in public places. Travel inside and outside of level 4 areas will not be permitted unless essential. In the rest of England, people will be allowed to gather in Christmas bubbles for a single day instead of five, as the government had originally planned.
The changes are upsetting the plans of millions of people who were anxious to reunite with family and friends next week, and force the scores to revise their travel plans at the last minute. Before Saturday, government officials said they would allow small private gatherings to take place.
While restaurants, pubs, bars and theaters across much of England are already closed and prepared for a dark Christmas, all stores in Level 4 areas that do not sell food or medicine have been given advance notice. just a few hours that they were due to close after Saturday until officials review. the situation on December 30.
The British Retail Consortium said it was “extremely regrettable news”, particularly two weeks after a month-long lockdown in England ended and at the height of the peak period of the year.
“Retailers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds to create COVID – safe stores for customers and staff,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the trade body. “For businesses, the government’s stop-start approach is deeply unnecessary.”
Announcing the most restrictive category, Johnson said a rapid new variant of the coronavirus that is more than 70% more transmissible than existing strains appears to be behind the rapid spread in London and the south of the England.
London now has the highest infection rates in England, and officials said the new mutation accounted for around 60% of the capital’s cases.
“There is no evidence to suggest that it is more deadly or causes more serious illness,” the prime minister stressed, or that the vaccines will be less effective against him.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the UK has alerted the World Health Organization that the new variant identified this week appears to be accelerating the spread of COVID-19. Government science advisers have come to this conclusion based on preliminary modeling numbers, and they continue to analyze the available data, he said.
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. But many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or the severity of symptoms.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on COVID-19, told reporters after receiving notification from England this week that the UN health agency had “no evidence that this variant occurs. behaves differently ”and was similar to a variant initially reported in mink in Europe. She said scientists will study the viral strain to see if there might be a difference in how it triggers an immune response in people.
In Wales, authorities have said they have decided to put in place a planned post-Christmas lockdown and people are to stay at home from 12:01 am Sunday. The move will largely eliminate Christmas gatherings under southern England rules.
Northern Ireland has already said a new lockdown will begin once Christmas is over.
British officials on Saturday reported 27,052 more confirmed cases and 534 more deaths of people who had tested positive in the previous 28 days. The UK has the second highest death toll from COVID-19 in Europe behind Italy at 67,075.