British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered England into a new national lockdown to contain a surge in Covid-19 cases which threatens to overwhelm parts of the health service before the vaccine programme can reach a critical mass.
His announcement on Monday came just hours after Britain became the first country to begin rolling out the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
He said a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus first identified in the UK and now present in many other countries was spreading at great speed and immediate action was needed to slow it down.
“With most of the country already under extreme measures, it’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control,” Johnson said in a televised address to the country, reported by Reuters.
“We must therefore go into a national lockdown tough enough to contain this variant. That means the government is once again instructing you to stay at home.”
Non-essential shops and hospitality venues will have to remain closed, while primary and secondary schools will close from Tuesday. It will not be possible for exams to go ahead this summer.
Johnson said that if the vaccine rollout goes as planned and the number of deaths responds to the lockdown measures as expected, it should be possible to start moving out of lockdown by the middle of February. However, he urged caution about the timetable.
As Britain grapples with the world’s sixth highest death toll and cases hit a new high, the country’s chief medical officers said the spread of Covid-19 risks overwhelming the health service within 21 days.
The surge in cases is being driven by the new variant of Covid-19, officials say, but there is also light at the end of the tunnel in the form of vaccinations.
But right now, even with the vaccines being rolled out, the number of infections and deaths keep rising. A record 58,784 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday.
Acting a few hours before Johnson, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed the most stringent lockdown for Scotland since last spring.