England’s top medical officer on Saturday announced that the U.K. has identified a new variant of the coronavirus that “can spread more quickly”, and called for greater public vigilance to reduce transmission, leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose fresh restrictions on parts of the nation to control its spread.
“We’re learning about it as we go, but we already know enough, more than enough, to be sure that we must act now,” Johnson said during a press briefing on Saturday. He also laid out fresh restrictions on London and other parts of England ahead of the Christmas holiday.
“When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense,” Johnson said.
Under the new Tier 4, people would be banned from mixing with anyone outside of their household, including on Christmas Day, and for the other tiers, Christmas rules allowing up to three households will now be limited to Christmas Day of December 25 only, rather than five days.
Now, it’s thought that the new strain could be up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain of the disease, Johnson said on Saturday, adding that it appears to be driving the rapid spread of infections. Johnson called on residents to refrain from traveling and “stay local” to prevent the new strain from moving around the country and abroad.
“We are sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so we have a better chance of protecting their lives so that we can see them at future Christmases,” he said, adding that he “bitterly regretted” having to make these changes.
The UK prime minister said there is no evidence to suggest vaccines would be any less effective against the new variant but that it was required to act fast to try and control its spread.
“Our advisers on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) have spent the last few days analyzing this new variant – there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality, but it does appear to be passed on significantly more quickly,” he said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday said scientists had identified a “new variant” in the south of England that could be causing infections to spread faster.
From Sunday, areas in the southeast of England, including London, currently in Tier 3, will be moved into a new Tier 4 – effectively returning to the complete lockdown rules of November.
Non-essential shops, gyms, cinemas, hairdressers, and bowling alleys will be forced to close for two weeks and people will be restricted to meeting just one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
Johnson added: “I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year, and how important it is, for instance, for grandparents to see their grandchildren, for families to be together.
“So I know how disappointing this will be. But we have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by science. When science changes, we must change our response.”
The Opposition Labour Party accused the government of “dither and delay” over its decision-making.
“Dither and delay have cost lives with more to come. The mental health implications of this will be tragic,” said Labour’s shadow minister for mental health Rosena Alin-Khan.