LONDON: Britain toughened its coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday, with England and Scotland going into another full lockdown, as a new variant spreads.
Surging numbers of positive cases, and fears the variant form of the virus is running out of control, prompted tougher action, including the closure of schools.
The public has been ordered to stay at home and work remotely, if possible, and only to go out for essential shopping, medical reasons or to exercise.
Justifying the measures, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that more than one million people in England or two per cent of the population -now had the virus.
A further 60,916 people tested positive in the last 24 hours across the country on Tuesday, while the number of people in hospital was now 40 per cent higher than at the April peak last year.
But Johnson pledged that a vaccination drive would see the most vulnerable inoculated by mid-February, paving the way for a gradual return to normality.
More than 1.3 million people across the UK have already received either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine since early December, including 650,000 people aged over 80, he said.
Nearly 1,000 vaccination sites will be operational by end of this week.
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said the timetable for the vaccination drive — Britain’s biggest — was “realistic, but not easy”.
Whitty hoped it would be possible to reach next winter without reimposing restrictions but added: “We just need to be aware of the fact this is not a problem that just disappears.”
Overall, Britain has been among the worst hit in the world by the outbreak, with nearly 2.8 million cases and more than 76,000 deaths. Another 830 deaths were recorded on Tuesday.
The tough new lockdown measures began in England on Tuesday morning and will become law after a vote in parliament on Wednesday.
Scotland’s lockdown will last at least until the end of this month, while Wales and Northern Ireland have also toughened existing restrictions.
Opinion polls suggested a majority of the public support the new lockdown and the closure of schools, despite criticism the government had been too slow to respond.
In London and Edinburgh, only a few people were walking through central streets past closed shops and cafés, according to AFP reporters.
“I’m perfectly fine with it,” Jenny Heath, 42, who works in marketing, told AFP in central London.
“There’s no way around it and it’s just a short-term solution to ease what’s happening in the NHS (National Health Service).”
“They are never going to get a handle on this virus until everybody is in total lockdown,” said 69-year-old Patricia Cairns in Edinburgh.
Pressure is mounting on government for the vaccination drive to be speeded up.
“It should be possible to reach daily vaccination levels of 300,000 to 500,000 doses per day,” said Professor Nilay Shah, head of department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London.
Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco has offered assistance that could include refrigerated lorries to distribute the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which can be kept at normal fridge temperatures.
Another supermarket chain, Morrisons, said three of its car parks would be used for vaccinations. High street pharmacy chain Boots is also to administer jabs.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak announced £4.6 billion ($6.3 billion, 5.1 billion euros) in extra funding for hard-hit retail, hospitality and leisure businesses which have been forced to close again.
Schoolchildren will not sit crucial end-of-year exams needed to enter higher education as usual, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said, promising as-yet-unspecified “alternative arrangements”.
He also said the UK could impose new restrictions on international travel.
Currently, quarantine is compulsory for those arriving from some countries but not virus testing. New proposals will be announced “very shortly”, said Gove.
Johnson has been widely criticised for hesitating too long before imposing the new measures, particularly school closures.
“I think the inability of the government to act decisively and to convey clear messages and have a clear strategy has been an enormous disappointment to teachers,” Jerry Glazier, spokesman of the National Education Union for teachers.