Sunday, 29 Nov 2020

British PM Johnson convenes Cabinet after reports England set for new virus lockdown

LONDON (AFP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson convened his Cabinet on Saturday (Oct 31) to decide whether to impose a new lockdown across England within days, following warnings his localised restrictions strategy has failed to curb soaring coronavirus cases.

Mr Johnson held a lunchtime meeting of his ministerial team to finalise stringent new nationwide rules, which will reportedly close all but “essential” stores while keeping schools, colleges and universities open.

He is expected to make an announcement from Downing Street later on Saturday.

The measures could come into effect as early as Wednesday and last until Dec 1, although no final decisions have yet been reached, The Times daily said.

The prospect of another nationwide lockdown comes after top scientific advisers warned that the virus was spreading significantly faster than their most dire predictions.

Documents released on Friday from an Oct 8 meeting of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) included warnings that infections and hospitalisations were “exceeding the reasonable worst-case scenario planning levels”.

The worst-case scenario, made in July, had predicted 85,000 more people could die during the winter wave of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, in its weekly study of Covid-19 prevalence also published on Friday, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said it “continued to rise steeply”, with the number of people infected increasing to around one in 100 nationwide.

Britain is among the hardest hit countries in Europe, with more than 46,000 people dying within 28 days of testing positive and the country set to cross the one million case threshold on Saturday.

Some European countries and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already reimposed partial lockdowns to try to cut their surging rates.

‘Lives and livelihoods’

Mr Johnson’s government, which is responsible for health policy in England only, has so far resisted the move, fearing the economic fallout.

Instead it has persevered with a localised response system that relies on three tiers of Covid-19 alert.

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Only at the highest level are pubs and bars closed and indoor socialising banned.

More than 11 million people – about a fifth of England’s population – are already set to be under the tightest measures from Monday, including the northern cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted on Friday the government would continue its tactic of “targeted” local restrictions in virus hotspots.

“The arbitrariness of a blanket approach would be far worse,” he argued, but with transmission rates soaring, the strategy has come under increasing scrutiny.

Calum Semple, a SAGE member, said on Saturday the virus was now “running riot” across the country in all age groups.

Last month, SAGE recommended a two-week national “circuit-breaker” lockdown over the half-term school holidays this week.

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Mr Johnson rejected the move. His critics say his decision has resulted in the need for an even longer lockdown now.

“Government delay has cost both lives and livelihoods,” London mayor Sadiq Khan, of the main opposition Labour party, wrote on Twitter. “We must act now to protect both.”

Earlier this year, Johnson was criticised for a slow response to the outbreak, delaying locking down Britain even as the number of positive cases and deaths spiralled across Europe.

He eventually imposed a national lockdown in late March, shutting all non-essential shops and schools, and forcing millions to work from home to cut transmission rates.

The stay-at-home measures were lifted in June as cases dwindled, with Mr Johnson declaring in July the country could see “a more significant return to normality from November… possibly in time for Christmas”.

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