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UK restrictions may last 'for couple of months' as new strain harder to contain

Boris Johnson says the NHS would be overwhelmed without action to curb the new coronavirus strain.

Updated Dec 20th 2020, 10:36 AM

2.57190765 Source: PA Images

RESTRICTIONS ACROSS THE UK which forced millions of people to tear up their Christmas plans may have to remain for “the next couple of months”, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has suggested.

In England, Boris Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas for almost 18 million people in London, south-eastern and eastern England as the region was put into a new two-week lockdown from Sunday.

Under the new Tier 4 rules non-essential shops – as well as gyms, cinemas, casinos and hairdressers – have to stay shut and people are limited to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.

Those in Tier 4 were told they should not travel out of the region, while those outside were advised against visiting.

“What is really important is that people not only follow them (the new rules) but everybody in a Tier 4 area acts as if you have the virus to stop spreading it to other people,” Hancock told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme.

Scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) have concluded the VUI 202012/01 mutant strain, identified by the Public Health England laboratories at Porton Down, is spreading more quickly.

The Prime Minister was advised of the group’s conclusions at a meeting with ministers on the Covid O Committee on Friday evening, and the new regulations were signed off by Cabinet before Saturday’s announcement scuppered many people’s plans to see family for Christmas.

“We know with this new variant you can catch it more easily from a small amount of the virus being present,” Hancock said.

“All of the different measures we have in place, we need more of them to control the spread of the new variant than we did to control the spread of the old variant. That is the fundamental problem.

“We know that because we know that in November that in the areas where this new variant started, in Kent, the cases carried on rising whereas in the rest of the country the November lockdown worked very effectively.

“It is an enormous challenge, until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people. This is what we face over the next couple of months.”

Hancock said he hopes 500,000 people in the UK will have received the first of two doses of the coronavirus vaccine by the end of the weekend.

In the rest of England, Christmas easing has been severely curtailed, with households allowed to gather for just one day – Christmas Day itself – rather than the five days previously planned.

Scotland and Wales are also restricting Christmas “bubbles” to a single day, while people in Northern Ireland have been asked to consider forming a bubble for Christmas Day only.

Wales has also mirrored the Tier 4 restrictions in England by bringing forward alert level four measures to Sunday, while Scotland has said its travel ban with the rest of the UK will now remain in place right throughout the festive period.

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At a No 10 news conference yesterday, Johnson said he was taking the actions with a “heavy heart”, but the scientific evidence – suggesting the new strain was up to 70% more transmissible than the original variant – had left him with no choice.

“Without action the evidence suggests that infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives,” he said.

“Yes Christmas this year will be different, very different. We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so that we have a better chance of protecting their lives, so that we can see them at future Christmases.”

The announcements prompted a rush to the London train stations and by 7pm on Saturday, there were no tickets available online from several London stations including Paddington, Kings Cross and Euston.

Footage posted on social media showed large crowds at St Pancras station waiting to board trains to Leeds.

The announcements came as a hammer blow to many businesses – particularly retailers hoping to pick up some pre-Christmas sales at the end of a torrid year in which they had faced repeated orders to close.

There was also fury among some Conservative MPs after weeks of growing backbench unrest over the return of more and more stringent controls.

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Mark Harper, the leader of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, demanded the recall of Parliament so MPs could debate and vote on the changes for England.

“Given the three-tier system and the initial Christmas household rules were expressly authorised by the House of Commons, these changes must also be put to a vote in the Commons at the earliest opportunity, even if that means a recall of the House, ” he said.

British Medical Association council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul however welcomed the announcement which, he said, would save lives and help health services cope with “incredible demand”.

2.57193143 Passengers at Paddington Station as people sought to leave London. Source: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The dramatic move came after scientists on the UK Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded the mutant strain identified by the Public Health England laboratories at Porton Down was spreading more quickly.

Johnson was advised of the group’s conclusions at a meeting with ministers on the Covid O Committee on Friday evening, and the new regulations were signed off by the Cabinet in a conference call on Saturday.

The UK also informed the World Health Organisation of its findings.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said the new variant, known as VUI 202012/01, was thought to have originated in either London or Kent in September.

By November, it was accounting for 28% of new infections in the region and by early December that had risen to 60%.

“This new variant not only moves fast but it is becoming the dominant variant,” he said.

He said however there was no evidence it causes a more severe illness than the original virus, while the “working assumption ” of scientists was that the vaccines that had been developed should be able to deal with it.

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