© Reuters. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in London
By Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) – London and south-east England could stay under tighter curbs for coronavirus for some time, the UK health minister suggested on Sunday, adding that plans to ease Christmas restrictions are needed to contain a rapidly spreading new strain.
The government has been criticized for effectively banning more than 16 million people a few days before Christmas. However, Matt Hancock said Saturday's decision was taken quickly after new evidence showed the new tribe was responsible for the spiral of COVID-19 cases.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the measures, he abruptly tore open plans to allow three households to mingle indoors for five days during the holiday season and imposed new Level 4 curbs on London and south-east England – similar to a national lockdown in March.
Hancock suggested that the stricter measures, which require about a third of the population of England to stay at home except for essential reasons such as work, could remain in place until vaccinations became widely available.
"We still have a long way to go to sort this out," Hancock told Sky News.
"Essentially, we need to bring this vaccine in to keep people safe. Given how much faster this new variant is spreading, it will be very difficult to keep it under control until we get the vaccine in."
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said at a press conference that although he supported the new measures, "the prime minister again waited until the 11th hour to make this decision."
"The alarm bells have been ringing for weeks, but the Prime Minister has decided to ignore them … He told the country to have a Merry Christmas … and yet three days later he is urging millions of families to tear up these plans" he said, referring to comments Johnson made on Wednesday.
Ministers say the new strain of coronavirus, identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, is up to 70% more transmissible than the original, but there is no evidence that it is any more deadly or causes more serious illness.
Shortly after Johnson announced the changes on Saturday afternoon, some in London went to the capital's train stations to try to travel to relatives over Christmas, and there were crowded scenes – something Hancock considered "completely irresponsible "designated.
The new rules came into force on Sunday.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people not to travel under the new restrictions. More UK traffic cops have been deployed to ensure that "only those who need to make essential travel can travel safely," he said in a statement.
With non-essential retail stores as well as places like gyms and hair salons ordered closed in Tier 4 areas, some companies called the new measures a "real kick in the teeth."
Hancock said the government recognized that the economic impact of the new measures was "severe" but needed to weigh it against the health impact.
Like other countries in Europe, the UK is struggling to contain new waves of the virus. 27,052 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Saturday, more than 2 million in total, and 534 more deaths, bringing the official casualty figure to over 67,000.
Vaccinations were introduced with the vaccine developed by Pfizer (NYSE 🙂 and BioNTech earlier this month.
Speaking of the BBC, Hancock said a new national lockdown was "not necessarily" inevitable in order to contain the surge in cases.
"One of the reasons we introduced the strict travel movements in Tier 4 … is to try to prevent the spread of this new variant," he told the Andrew Marr Show.