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With health system facing crisis, Johnson orders third full lockdown across England

The full emergency lockdown will start immediately and last until at least February 15, threatening to push the economy into a double-dip recession.

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London: Boris Johnson imposed a third coronavirus lockdown across England, shutting schools and ordering the public to stay at home, amid dire warnings that the National Health Service is being pushed to breaking point.

The full emergency lockdown will start immediately and last until at least February 15, potentially devastating retail and hospitality businesses and threatening to push the economy into a double-dip recession, as medics try to get a grip on the pandemic.

In a televised address to the nation, the prime minister insisted he had no option but to close down all social activities, education and non-essential travel in the face of a sudden and severe surge in infections.

“Our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” Johnson said in the broadcast. “With most of the country already under extreme measures it’s clear that we need to do more to to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out.”

Under the rules announced on Monday:

  • Everyone must stay at home unless they are medics or other key workers who cannot work from home
  • People can only leave home to buy essential supplies or take exercise, ideally only once a day
  • All primary and secondary schools and colleges will close from Tuesday and move to online teaching. Exams will not go ahead as normal this summer
  • Households cannot mix for purely social reasons, anywhere
  • All restaurants, bars and non-essential shops will stay closed, except where they sell takeaway food. Sales of takeaway alcohol will be banned
  • Essential retailers such as supermarkets and pharmacies, and nurseries will remain open
  • The police will have legal power to use fines and dispersal orders to enforce the rules, which are likely to be in place for the next two months, officials said. Parliament will be recalled to debate the measures on Wednesday but the regulations are due to become law on Tuesday.

The prime minister was forced to act after data showed new infections soaring past 50,000 a day and more people in the hospital than in the first peak of the virus in April.

By Jan. 4, there were 26,626 patients in hospital with Covid-19, a 30% increase in a week, which the government is blaming on a surge in infections from a new, faster spreading strain of the virus.

Johnson resisted pressure from scientists and opposition lawmakers to lockdown the whole country in December. He cut back plans to allow families to mix over Christmas, but insisted he wanted to avoid nationwide curbs like those seen in March, choosing to keep a regional tier system in place instead.

But government chief medical officers for the four nations of the U.K. warned on Monday that the health service may not be able to cope without urgent action now. They issued a statement two hours before the prime minister’s announcement, saying the NHS is “under immense pressure” already.

“We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days,” they said in a statement which said the national alert level is now at the highest level five. “Cases are rising almost everywhere.”

Scotland earlier announced a lockdown starting at midnight. “We are now in a race between the vaccine and the virus,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said as she ordered Scots to stay home and for schools to remain shut.

Johnson has made keeping schools open for face-to-face learning a priority for his government, but scientists warned last month they would have to close to stop the virus from spreading. While children rarely suffer badly from the disease, they can infect their families after catching it from their friends.

It’s a far cry from the government’s optimism in early December, when the arrival of vaccines was described as the “scientific cavalry” coming to the rescue.

The dilemma for the government has been to try to balance attempts to stop the spread of the virus against the need to keep shops and businesses open to protect the economy, which has already seen it most sever downturn for 300 years.

A double-dip recession is looking increasingly inevitable as a result of the new lockdown. Before Johnson’s announcement, most economists expected the U.K. economy to eke out some growth this quarter.

Four weeks of school closures could cost as much as 3% of GDP, according to a tweet by Ludovic Subran, chief economist at Allianz SE. Bloomberg Economics estimates that as much as 6% of Europe’s labor supply could be affected by the narrowing of childcare options. – Bloomberg

Also read: UK set to give first Oxford Covid vaccine shots as cases surge


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