England to enter month-long second coronavirus lockdown

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LONDON — This was Boris Johnson’s King Canute moment. 

Having spent the past few weeks trying to find a balanced approach in the face of the relentless incoming tide of England’s coronavirus second wave, the prime minister said in a Saturday evening press conference it was now time to be “humble in the face of nature.”

England will enter a one-month national lockdown on Thursday, Johnson announced, warning that without tougher restrictions the country could within weeks be recording “several thousand” COVID-19 deaths a day.

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Announcing the new measures, which will see all pubs, restaurants, non-essential shops and other venues forced to close, Johnson said the country had “no alternative,” with current modeling showing that the rise in infections would mean the NHS would be overwhelmed within weeks, with healthcare staff “forced to choose between saving COVID patients and non-COVID patients.”

Johnson’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, appearing alongside the prime minister and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, said there was now the potential for deaths over the winter “to be twice as bad or more compared to the first wave” of the epidemic in the U.K. With no new action, the death rate would be “very close to the first wave peak” by December 8, Vallance said, calling it “a very grim picture.” The U.K. recorded another 326 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday. 

The new measures, which will be debated and voted on by the U.K. parliament on Wednesday, will remain in place until December 2, when England will revert to its current regional approach to coronavirus restrictions.  

While grueling for the public, the restrictions will be welcomed by a scientific community that has said for weeks now that the government’s tiered regional approach would not be sufficient to turn the tide on the virus. 

However, they are politically extremely difficult for Johnson, who has long argued that his “tier system” is the sensible “balanced” approach and that a national lockdown — even a temporary one – would be profoundly damaging economically. Compounding his political problem, the lead opposition party, Labour, argued for a very similar national lockdown nearly three weeks ago — and won’t let Johnson forget it. 

Johnson said he believed the regional approach had been “the right thing to do,” but that the new data made further action unavoidable. 

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“We’ve got to be humble in the face of nature. In this country, alas as in much of Europe, the virus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worst-case scenario of our scientific advises,” he said.

‘Very, very difficult choices’

The prime minister, who throughout the crisis has been accused of over-promising and under-delivering in his assessment of how quickly the country could emerge from the crisis, said that despite the “gloominess” of the current moment, he was “optimistic” that things would “feel very different and better by the spring,” describing improving treatments, the “realistic” prospect of a vaccine and the expansion of mass testing as “rays of sunshine.”

He said that the army would be drafted in to carry out logistical work as part of a “steady but massive expansion” of quick turnaround tests, which have been trialed in recent weeks. Johnson pledged the program would soon enable the government to test “whole towns and even whole cities.”

The new restrictions, which are expected to clear a parliamentary vote with ease, mean the closure of all pubs, bars, restaurants, non-essential shops, hairdressers and beauty salons. Schools, universities, colleges and nurseries will stay open. People will only be allowed to leave their homes for specific purposes including: to go to work if they cannot work from home; for education; for exercise or recreation outdoors with their own household or alone with one other person from another household; or to shop for essential items. Construction and manufacturing sectors will remain open, as will parliament. 

The imminent new restrictions were first reported on Friday evening, but not formally agreed until Saturday afternoon, when Johnson convened his Cabinet for an online meeting. Ministers heard from Whitty and Vallance, who briefed them on dire new figures on the growth in infections and the likely overwhelming pressure on hospitals that would follow should national measures not be imposed. 

Johnson said that the government’s furlough job protection scheme, which had been expected to expire within hours, would be extended through November, with the state guaranteeing 80 percent of furloughed workers wages.

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The latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics, which conducts regular infection surveys of the population, is that 1 in every 100 people in England have COVID-19, up from one in 200 as recently as the beginning of October. In July, the figure was in one in 2,300. 

Ministers were also shown modeling of the relationship between a rise in cases and hospital admissions. By the first week of December, the NHS in England is projected to be beyond both its fixed and surge bed capacity — even if it were to cancel routine operations to clear space. 

Having secured agreement from Cabinet for the new measures, Johnson spoke to Labour leader Keir Starmer and House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. 

No. 10 also spent much of Saturday seeking to win over Conservative MPs, some of whom strongly opposed another lockdown. MPs were briefed in writing by Chief Whip Mark Spencer who set out the “seriousness of the current state of affairs,” one senior MP said. One of the most influential lockdown-skeptics, former minister Steve Baker, attended a meeting at No. 10 and was shown the latest data, saying afterwards that he would “reflect” on his stance and that the prime minister had “very, very difficult choices to make.”

However, it seems unlikely that any rebellion against the new measures will threaten the government in Wednesday’s vote. “There are a small number of MPs who are very loud and vocal. But a quiet majority back the measures and keep quiet because they don’t want a row,” said one former minister. Another former Cabinet minister said the overall mood among Tory MPs was one of “acceptance and resignation.”

The opposition benches will be less forgiving. Labour called for a three-week “circuit breaker” national lockdown in mid-October, after it was revealed that the government’s own scientific advisers had recommended as much as early as September. 

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Johnson’s call with Starmer was routine and business-like, people familiar with the call said, but before the prime minister had even set out the detail of the measures, Labour had posted a video to Twitter cataloging all the times ministers had lambasted the idea of a national lockdown. As recently as October 22, Chancellor Rishi Sunak called such an approach “damaging” and “blunt.”

“Everybody is concerned about the rise in infections, hospital admissions and — tragically — the number of deaths,” Starmer said in a statement. “That’s why three weeks ago, Labour called for a circuit breaker in England, in line with SAGE’s recommendation to bring infections down. The government completely rejected that, only to now announce the same thing.”

“That delay in introducing restrictions will come at an economic cost and a human cost,” he added.

Labour’s most successful attack line on the government in recent months has been on competence and the U-turn on a time-limited lockdown represents perhaps the biggest opportunity yet to land that argument. 

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

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