UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that the new strain of coronavirus was “out of control” and suggested that parts of England would remain stuck in the new, highest level of restrictions pending a vaccine.
More than 16 million Britons are now forced to stay at home after a lockdown went into effect in London and south-east England on Sunday and the government abandoned plans to relax the rules on socializing for Christmas.
Measures to combat the rapidly spreading new variant of the virus prohibit shuffling households in these areas and limit socializing in the rest of England to Christmas Day. Residents across the country were told to stay in their local areas, and additional police officers were deployed at train stations to prevent people from traveling out of London.
“The falls have skyrocketed so we still have a long way to go,” Hancock told Sky News. “I think it will be very difficult to keep it under control until the vaccine is in place.” People in the new Tier 4 areas “should act like they have,” he said.
Hancock said 350,000 people had been vaccinated by Saturday morning, with the goal of reaching 500,000 by the end of the weekend.
Johnson originally planned to relax pandemic rules for five days during the vacation, but made an abrupt change following emergency talks with officials about the virus mutation.
New scientific evidence suggests that the new variant, which Hancock said has also appeared in Australia and continental Europe, can spread significantly faster than previous strains circulating and is behind the surge in infections in recent days.
“We made a commitment not to know that there will be a new variant that will spread so much faster,” said Hancock of the original plans. He said there was “no evidence” that the new strain – VUI-202012/01 – is milder than the original virus.
Maria Van Kerkhove, technical director of Covid-19 at the World Health Organization, told BBC program Andrew Marr: “We understand that the virus does not cause any more serious illnesses.”
Videos shared on social media showed a shot for trains from London on Saturday night.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said in a statement that more traffic cops are being deployed to deter people from making unnecessary trips out of the capital. Shapps is reviewing compensation payments for canceled tickets, Hancock said.
Opposition Labor Party’s Lisa Nandy said the policy change was “a perfect example” of Johnson’s “making a promise he knew he couldn’t keep Christmas”.
“I think we have this ongoing exchange of blows from the government,” Nandy told Andrew Marr.
Charles Walker, a lawmaker for Johnson’s Conservative Party, told the Sunday Telegraph that Hancock should resign. Another Tory MP, Mark Harper, who represents a caucus that speaks out against lockdown measures, has called on the government to call lawmakers out of their vacation to vote on the tightened virus measures.
Hancock said a vote will be held in January.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)