Greater London and southeast England could remain under tighter restrictions for some time to contain a fast-spreading new strain of coronavirus, Britain’s Health Secretary proposed Sunday after the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in a single day.
Government officials faced criticism for abruptly scrapping plans to ease restrictions at Christmas and impose an effective lockdown on more than 16 million people. Minister of Health Matt Hancock has defended the decision, stating that evidence showing the new strain was causing a surge in cases had forced the move.
Officials said the variant, which is up to 70% more transmissible than the original, also sparked concerns about further spread. A number of European countries, including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, also said they would take measures to prevent people from entering the country from Britain, including flight and train bans.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday scrapped plans to allow three households to mingle indoors for five days over the holidays and imposed new Level 4 lockdown measures – resembling a nationwide lockdown in March – on London and southeast England.
However, Hancock hinted that the tougher measures – which require about a third of England’s population to stay home except for vital reasons, such as work – could remain in place until vaccinations become more widely available.
“We have a long way to go to get this right,” said Hancock to Sky News.
“Essentially, we need to get the vaccine on the market to protect people. Considering how much faster this new variant is spreading, it’s going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we roll out the vaccine.”
The United Kingdom began vaccinating people with the vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech earlier this month.
Cases in the U.K. rose by 35,928 on Sunday, the highest daily rise since the pandemic began, and 326 deaths were reported, bringing the official number to more than 67,000.