London: Boris Johnson’s government is examining whether to put more of England in lockdown to counter a faster-spreading coronavirus variant.
Ministers and scientific experts met late Tuesday after cases of the new Covid-19 strain were identified outside London and southeast England, which were placed into the highest Tier 4 restrictions last weekend. The government will discuss the latest data Wednesday morning and “won’t hesitate” to adjust the tiers if needed, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News.
Applying an effective lockdown more widely would be a significant blow to Johnson. He has faced criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, most recently after a surge in cases linked to the new strain forced a U-turn on his plan to significantly relax social-distancing rules over Christmas. The prime minister is facing growing calls to mover faster to curb its spread.
“The number of cases is rising and the variant is spreading to other parts of the country,” Jenrick told the BBC during his media round Wednesday. “So we will see whether it’s necessary to do more and make sure that the tiered system is sufficiently robust for the new circumstances.”
Jenrick declining to comment on which areas may face tougher restrictions, but suggested any changes won’t be implemented before Christmas.
“We don’t have any intention of changing the guidelines with respect to Christmas,” he told BBC radio. “We’re not going to change people’s plans 24, 48 hours ahead of Christmas.”
He also didn’t rule out a full national lockdown in England, though he said the government is committed to the tier system because the scale of the outbreak varies across the country.
“That’s the localized, proportionate way to handle the virus,” he told ITV.
The new coronavirus variant, which emerged in southeast England in September, has alarmed scientists and governments around the world because early analysis suggests it may be as much as 70% more transmissible than other circulating strains. Countries including France temporarily suspended travel from the U.K. in response.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday said the variant is “out of control” and suggested the parts of England placed into Tier 4 would have to stay at the level until a vaccine has been rolled out. U.K. Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance warned Monday more regions face tighter restrictions as a result.
‘Country on Fire’
For Johnson’s government, the surge in cases has taken the gloss off a year-end news cycle ministers hoped would be focused on the roll-out of vaccines, after the U.K. became the first Western nation to approve the use of a shot developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE.
Now, the focus is once again on whether the country’s National Health Service is again at risk of being overwhelmed by a surge in cases, and whether the government should have taken action sooner when the data showed caseloads surging.
The whole of England should be placed into Tier 4, Christina Pagel, professor of Operational Research at University College, London, told Times Radio on Wednesday.
“If we just wait and we let it spread to the north, where things are much more under control, then the whole country is on fire,” she said.