Scotland on Monday announced the most stringent Covid-19 lockdown since last March just as the UK's Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was due to announce tougher curbs in England to contain a rapidly spreading outbreak of a new coronavirus variant.
The UK has the world's sixth-highest official coronavirus death toll at 75,024, and the number of new infections is soaring across the country.
Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said the new variant accounted for nearly half of new cases in Scotland and is 70 percent more transmissible.
Scots, she said, would be legally required to stay at home for January from midnight. Schools will close for all but the children of essential workers.
"I am more concerned about the situation that we face now than I have been at any time since March," Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament.
"As a result of this new variant, [the virus] has just learned to run much faster, and has most definitely picked up pace in the past couple of weeks," Sturgeon said.
PM Johnson, meanwhile, who has said tougher measures are imminent, announced that he would address the nation at 8pm local time. The British Parliament will be recalled from its holiday recess to sit on Wednesday. The prime minister’s office did not release any details of the new measures ahead of Johnson’s remarks.
Visiting a hospital to see the first people receive the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, Johnson said the country faced "tough, tough" weeks to come.
"If you look at the numbers, there's no question that we're going to have to take tougher measures and we'll be announcing those in due course," he said. "We've got the virus really surging.”
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implement their own Covid-19 responses, though they are trying to coordinate more across the UK.
Government may rethink secondary schools’ reopening
England is currently divided into four tiers of restrictions, depending on the prevalence of the virus, with the vast majority of the country in tiers 3 and 4 where social mixing is restricted, and restaurants and pubs are closed.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier that the rules in tier 3 were clearly not working.
With England moving back towards the strict lockdown imposed during the first wave in March, Johnson was also asked if schools would have to close once again and return to online learning.
He said that option would remain a last resort for primary schools given the social and educational damage that can be done to isolated children, but he indicated they may need to rethink a plan to reopen secondary schools for pupils aged 11 to 18.
"It looks as though secondary schools probably play more of a role in the spread of the epidemic than primary schools, so we'll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month," he said.
As is the case in most countries, the British government has spent the year trying to balance the need to shut down the country to contain the virus with the need to protect the economy.
The first national coronavirus lockdown in May last year prompted a 25 percent drop in economic output – unprecedented in modern records – leaving Britain's economy harder hit by the pandemic than most others.
While the economy recovered partially in the third quarter, renewed lockdown measures threaten to cause a double-dip recession at the start of 2021.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)