LONDON — London and southeast England may stay under tighter curbs for some time to stem a fast-spreading new coronavirus strain, Britain’s Health minister suggested yesterday, as COVID-19 cases surged by a record number for one day.
The government faced criticism for abruptly scrapping plans to ease restrictions for Christmas and imposing an effective lockdown on more than 16 million people.
Health minister Matt Hancock defended the decision, saying evidence showing the new strain was causing spiralling cases had forced the action.
The variant, which officials say is up to 70% more transmissible than the original, also prompted concerns about a wider spread.
Several European countries, including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, said they were taking measures to prevent people arriving from Britain, including bans on flights and trains.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson tore up plans to allow three households to mix indoors for five days over the festive period, and imposed new Tier 4 level curbs — similar to a national lockdown in March — on London and southeast England.
Hancock suggested the tougher measures — which require about a third of the population of England to stay at home except for essential reasons such as work – might remain in place until vaccinations become more widely available.
“We’ve got a long way to go to sort this,” Hancock told Sky News.
“Essentially, we have got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe. Given how much faster this new variant spreads, it’s going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out.”
Britain began inoculating people using the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech earlier this month.
The number of cases in Britain surged by 35 928 yesterday, the highest daily rise since the start of the pandemic, and it recorded 326 deaths, taking the official toll to more than 67 000.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer told a news conference that while he supported the new measures, yet again the Prime Minister waited until the 11th hour to take this decision.
“The alarm bells have been ringing for weeks, but the prime minister chose to ignore them … He told the country to go ahead and have a merry little Christmas … and yet three days later he tells millions of families to rip up those plans,” he said, referring to comments Johnson made on Wednesday.
Soon after Johnson announced the changes on Saturday afternoon, some in London headed for train stations to try to travel to see relatives over Christmas, and there were scenes of crowding – something Hancock called “totally irresponsible”.