Boris Johnson has announced a four-week national lockdown in England in a bid to control the spread of coronavirus, amid criticism that his delay in imposing restrictions will have a “very real” human cost.
The Prime Minister rejected calls last month for a short, sharp shutdown – but after local restrictions failed to sufficiently reduce infections, he was forced to tell the country once again to stay at home.
Pubs, bars, restaurants and non-essential retail will close from Thursday until December 2 across England, with furlough payments at 80% extended for the duration of the new restrictions.
People will be allowed to exercise and socialise in public spaces outside with their household or one other person, but not indoors or in private gardens, and will be able to travel to work if they cannot work from home.
Yet unlike in the lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic, schools, colleges and nurseries will remain open.
It emerged earlier in October that Government scientific advisers called for a short lockdown in September, prompting Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to urge Mr Johnson to impose such restrictions.
He said on Saturday that he was glad the Prime Minister had “finally taken the decision it should have taken weeks ago” and indicated Labour would support the restrictions in a Commons vote.
“Everybody is concerned about the rise in infections, the hospital admissions and tragically the number of deaths. That’s why three weeks ago, I called for circuit-break,” Sir Keir told reporters.
“The Government completely rejected that only now to announce the self-same thing. Alas the delay now will cost, the lockdown will be longer, it’ll be harder and there’s a human cost which will be very, very real.”
The British Medical Association also said it was “regrettable that warnings from Sage were not actioned as long ago as 21 September”.
MPs will vote on the new measures in the Commons on Wednesday ahead of their introduction at 0001 on Thursday. When they lapse on December 2, the current tier system will be reintroduced.
The hope is that Covid-19 cases will drop low enough to keep on top of outbreaks at a regional level.
Mr Johnson said “no responsible Prime Minister can ignore” the rising rates of Covid-19 infections, as he acknowledged that cases had not come down fast enough in the worst affected areas.
“We know the cost of these restrictions – the impact on jobs and livelihoods, and people’s mental health. No-one wants to be imposing these measures,” he added.
The Prime Minister warned that the virus is “spreading even faster than the reasonable worst case scenario of our scientific advisers”.
He said: “Unless we act, we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day – a peak of mortality, alas, bigger than the one we saw in April.”
The Prime Minister said overrunning of the NHS would be a “medical and moral disaster, beyond the raw loss of life”.
He added: “Doctors and nurses would be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would get oxygen and who wouldn’t, who would live and who would die.
“Doctors and nurses would be forced to choose between saving Covid patients and non-Covid patients.
“The sheer weight of Covid demand would mean depriving tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions of non-Covid patients of the care they need.”
He added: “The risk is, for the first time in our lives, the NHS will not be there for us.”
Mr Johnson made the announcement as coronavirus cases in the UK since the start of the outbreak passed one million, with a further 21,915 reported on Saturday.
The Government also said another 326 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Saturday.
Under the new restrictions set out by the Prime Minister:
– Millions of people classed as clinically vulnerable to coronavirus will be told to take “extra precautions” but will not be formally asked to shield.
– Travel and overnight stays in the UK and abroad will be restricted as people are advised not to travel unless for essential reasons.
– “Rapid turnaround tests” for coronavirus will be rolled out in “a matter of days”, and the Army will be brought in to help distribute the swabs, which could help partners attend labour wards.
– Churches will remain open for private prayer, funerals will be limited to 30 people – although it is advised that only close family members attend – and weddings are only allowed in “exceptional circumstances”.
– Single-adult households will continue to be allowed to form a “support bubble” with one other household, and children can move between homes if their parents are separated.
– Job centres, courts, and civil registration offices will remain open, and elite sport will be allowed to continue behind closed doors.
Mr Johnson warned that Christmas could be “very different” this year, but offered a glimmer of hope that families may be able to be together after the lockdown.
He said: “It is my sincere hope and belief that by taking tough action now we can allow families across the country to be together.”