London, Dec 19 (efe-epa).- This capital and large areas of southern England are to be placed on lockdown over the Christmas period amid a surge of Covid-19 cases linked to the emergence of a new variant of the virus, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday.
“It is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot proceed with Christmas as planned,” he said at a press conference where he was joined by his chief medical and scientific advisers, Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, respectively.
London and adjoining parts of southeast England have been subject to the most stringent current restrictions under the system of three ascending tiers implemented last month.
From midnight Saturday, those areas will be under a new level of vigilance, Tier 4, that requires non-essential businesses such as gyms, hairdressers and indoor leisure venues to shut down and calls on individuals to stay home.
The Conservative premier also dialed back plans to allow mixing of households in jurisdictions under Tiers 1, 2 and 3 over a five-day window on either side of Dec. 25.
Now, such gatherings will only be permitted on Christmas Day in Tiers 1,2 and 3 and not all in Tier 4, where people will be limited to outdoor encounters in public spaces with no more than one person from outside their household Travel into and out of Tier 4 areas, including international travel, will be banned, Johnson said.
In the wake of Johnson’s press conference, the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland signaled new steps of their own.
The Welsh administration said that a lockdown initially set to begin after Christmas would instead take effect at midnight Saturday. In Edinburgh, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a ban on travel between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Both the Scottish and Welsh governments followed Johnson in limiting household-mixing to Christmas Day.
“The British public is entitled to more decisive leadership than that. They’re getting confusion where they need certainty,” the leader of the main opposition Labor Party, Sir Keir Starmer, said in response to the prime minister’s announcement, while expressing his party’s support for the new measures.
During debate Wednesday in the House of Commons, Starmer asked Johnson to reconsider his plans for a relaxation of pandemic restrictions over the holidays.
The premier accused the Labor leader of wanting to “cancel Christmas.”
“I think the heartbreak of millions of families will be made much greater by the fact that the prime minister only three days ago was saying ‘have a merry little Christmas’ when we were challenging him on this, and now says ‘I’m going to rip up your plans,'” Starmer said Saturday, alluding to his earlier exchange with Johnson.
Saturday’s announcement, which comes just six days before Christmas, was prompted by warnings from the government’s emergency scientific advisory group, SAGE, which is closely monitoring a new variant of Covid-19 that has been detected in southeast England.
Vallance said the new variant accounted for 62 percent of new cases being detected in London.
“The spread is being driven by the new variant of the virus. It appears to spread more easily and may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the earlier strain,” Johnson said, though he added that the government has seen “no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness.”
Whitty said that the UK had informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about the new strain of Covid-19 detected in southeast England.
A number of new strains have been identified since the start of the pandemic. The WHO’s Maria van Kerkhove said earlier this week regarding the notification from England that the agency had “no evidence this variant behaves differently.” EFE vg/jt-dr