Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a partial lockdown for England in a bid to contain a resurgent coronavirus outbreak that’s spreading faster than the government’s worst-case projections.
The lockdown will start on Thursday, pending a vote in parliament, and last until at least early December, Johnson said on Saturday in a televised press conference. All but essential shops will close, as will restaurants and bars, though schools and universities will remain open.
The prime minister also announced that state payments will be made to furloughed workers of as much as 80% of their wages through the new lockdown period. Existing assistance measures had been due to end this weekend and be replaced by a less generous program.
“We know the cost of these restrictions, the damage that they do, the impact on jobs and livelihoods and people’s mental health,” said Johnson. “No one wants to be imposing these measures anywhere.”
“But we’ve got to be humble in the face of nature,” Johnson said. Data suggested hospitals in parts of England could run out of capacity in a matter of weeks, he said, and deaths could reach several thousands per day.
The announcement of new restrictions came on the same day as official data showed that virus cases in the U.K. since the pandemic began had surpassed 1 million.
The measures are in line with those taken by other governments in Europe, where infections are also spiking heading into winter. They’re less restrictive than the months-long curbs put in place earlier this year, when schools were closed, and are designed to allow people to keep working.
Still, it represents a significant — and politically risky — change of tack for Johnson, who for weeks has pushed back against another lockdown, calling it the “nuclear” option that could be economically “disastrous.”
He focused instead on a 3-tier system of restrictions in England to target localized outbreaks, even as governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which set their own virus-fighting policies, opted for tougher measures.
Johnson spoke alongside Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty after meeting with his cabinet.
The “prevalence of this disease has been going up extremely rapidly over the last few weeks.” Whitty said. He cited a rise in Covid patients in the hospital and warned, “if we do nothing, the inevitable result is that these numbers will go up and they will eventually exceed the peak that we saw in spring.” Vallance said models showed that deaths could potentially be twice as high as the first wave of the pandemic.
The volte-face risks vindicating opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer’s calls for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown, but the data left Johnson with little choice. Cases across the U.K. jumped by nearly 22,000 on Saturday while deaths rose another 326. Britain has Europe’s highest death toll from Covid-19 with more than 46,000 fatalities.
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