LONDON – The holiday season is kicking off, and England is locking down for a month starting on Thursday, Nov. 5.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during a news conference on Saturday evening that “we have got to be humble in the face of nature. The virus is spreading faster than expected, and hospitals will run out of capacity if we do not act now.”
As of Nov. 5, all non-essential retail will be forced to shut, although click-and-collect services will remain open. Restaurants, bars and pubs will also need to close, but can remain open for food takeaway orders. Everyone will be urged to work from home. The measures will remain in place until Wednesday, Dec. 2.
All of the large retailers – Selfridges, Harrods, and Liberty – have already opened their holiday shops, and will now have to sell their teddy bears, Christmas puddings and baubles online.
The New West End Company, which oversees an array of retail and hospitality businesses around Oxford Street and Bond Street, said it still plans to switch on the Christmas lights on Monday night.
Schools, universities, construction and public works projects will remain open. The government also plans to extend the furlough scheme through the beginning of December. The scheme, put in place early in the pandemic, was due to end on Oct. 31.
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Saturday’s hastily-arranged news conference followed a leak in The Times of London on Friday night. The newspaper reported that Johnson had finally decided on a temporary lockdown despite opposition to the move among members of his Conservative party and certain Members of Parliament.
In early October, despite repeated warnings from medical advisors, Johnson had decided against a brief “circuit-breaker” during the half-term school holidays. Johnson’s argument had always been that any more shutdowns would be damaging to the British economy and to people’s mental health.
But now the numbers, and projections, appear to be too extreme to ignore. The country’s medical advisers, who flanked Johnson during the news conference, said that new cases of COVID-19 are spreading “steadily” across the country, and affecting younger age groups, too, including teenagers and people in their 40s – and not just the elderly.
They said the potential number of deaths in England could be “twice as bad” as the first wave earlier this year, and that all the ventilator beds in National Health Service hospitals will be filled to capacity by the end of November if no emergency measures are now.
“No responsible prime minister could ignore the message of those figures,” said Johnson. “We need to get the rates of infection down. It would be a medical and moral disaster if we run out of beds.” Johnson emphasized that the NHS also needs to keep treating non-COVID patients, such as people undergoing cancer treatment, and cannot risk being overwhelmed.
He acknowledged that “Christmas will be very different this year,” and said he hoped the temporary lockdown would allow families to spend time together over the holidays in December.
Johnson also said he remained optimistic that life will improve by the spring as, by then, the U.K. will have rolled out a program of “rapid turnaround” COVID-19 tests, and would be enlisting the Army to help operate the testing centers and ensure the checks are carried out.
“We need to act now to contain a full-scale surge,” Johnson said, before repeating his mantra from earlier this year. “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.”
Johnson said that Parliament would debate the proposed new measures on Tuesday and take a vote on Wednesday. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been taking similar steps to prevent the spread of the virus in their respective regions.
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