Boris Johnson is facing intense pressure to impose another national lockdown in a few days as more than 40 countries banned arrivals from the UK in an effort to prevent a rapidly spreading new variant of the coronavirus.
The government’s scientific advisers warned that inaction could cost tens of thousands of lives and risk “economic, human and social disaster”, with new tension spreading across the UK and abroad.
Ministers urged people to avoid buying food in panic, as France failed to lift its UK cargo and passenger ban on Monday despite a personal appeal from the prime minister, who asked Emmanuel Macron to leave. aside his “anxiety” about the new strain of COVID-19.
At a press conference in Downing Street, Johnson went out of his way to assure other world leaders that Britain had responded quickly. “I hope everyone can see that as soon as we were informed as a government of the rapid transmissibility of this new strain … we submitted all the necessary information to the World Health Organization. And we took swift and decisive action the next day to stop the spread of the variant within the UK, ”he said.
Johnson said delays in the transport of goods through the Canal affected a small proportion of food entering the UK. “As UK supermarkets have said, their supply chains are strong and robust, so everyone can continue to shop normally,” he said. Even so, some shoppers reported queues and empty shelves in supermarkets.
Downing Street insisted that the measures imposed over the weekend, which placed London and the southern and eastern areas of England at a level 4 similar to a lockdown, but left people elsewhere still able to mingle on the day of Christmas, they could control the spread of the variant.
But the message from health officials and scientists was very different. In a joint statement, Greater Manchester public health directors said that anyone arriving in the region from a Level 4 area or from Wales, which is also in effect locked in, must self-isolate for at least 10 days.
Cases of the Covid mutation, which is believed to spread between people with up to 70% more efficiency, have been detected across the UK, and Johnson’s chief scientific adviser said restrictions were likely to occur. stronger.
“The lesson I think needs to be learned about this virus … is that it is important to get ahead of it in terms of actions,” Sir Patrick Vallance told a Downing Street news conference with Johnson. “I think the amount of the variant across the country is likely to increase, and therefore I think the measures are likely to need to be increased in some places in due course, not reduced.”
Since news broke over the weekend of the rapid spread of the new variant in parts of England, at least 42 countries have banned all flights from the UK or said that only their citizens may be allowed to follow a test of negative coronavirus. They include: Belgium, Italy, Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, Hungary, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, South Africa, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia, France, Malta, Sweden, Turkey, Hong Kong. , Canada, India, Russia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, El Salvador, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Colombia, Morocco, Chile, Finland and Argentina.
In a briefing on Monday, the scientists said they had examined additional data and now had “high confidence” that the new strain had a transmission advantage over other variants of the virus circulating in the UK.
“We still don’t understand the exact biological mechanisms,” said Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford who chairs the government’s Emerging and New Respiratory Virus Threat Advisory Group (Nervtag). “So there is still a lot of uncertainty about how exactly and exactly the extent of the additional transmissibility is happening.”
Other scientists said the variant was unlikely to be largely contained in southern and eastern England, noting that the UK was heading towards the peak of the first wave of hospital admissions and deaths, to accompany the additional cost of the winter on the NHS. A further 33,364 people were reported to have tested positive across the UK on Monday and 215 people died.
When Johnson confirmed that more than 500,000 people had received the first dose of the only approved Covid vaccine, scientists said tougher measures now could save the lives of those who have not yet been immunized.
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the new variant has the potential to spread across the UK and abroad.
“I recognize that we have restricted travel from the level 4 areas … but this transmission is not just in those level 4 areas, it is there at some level throughout the country,” he said. “We are entering a really critical phase of this pandemic, and it makes perfect sense … to act decisively, I would say throughout the country, as many other countries have done, despite the fact that, as far as we know, they are not affected. by this strain. “
When asked if it would be advisable to have a national lockdown, Hayward said: “Personally, I think it is clearer to give a coherent national message because, although the risk levels are different in different parts of the country, they are still there and ‘remain substantial.
“Essentially what we are really doing is trying to reduce transmission until we can protect as many vulnerable people as possible and that would allow us to buy many more weeks, in which we could vaccinate people. I couldn’t give you an accurate estimate … but my opinion is that it will be on the scale of tens of thousands of lives.
“An increase in transmissibility, even with exactly the same death rate per person, will lead to many, many more deaths, unless our control measures are made more effective.”
Robert West, professor of health psychology at the Institute of Epidemiology and Health at University College London, who is part of Sage’s behavioral science advisory group, said his personal opinion was that it was “unlikely” that the system current contained the spread of the virus. .
He said: “We need to reset our strategy and move quickly to a Covid Zero strategy of the kind that many have been proposing. This will involve stricter but more rational social distancing rules across the country and ultimately doing what we should have done from the start: building the kind of testing, travel, isolation and support programs that they have in the Far Eastern countries. .
“It sounds expensive, but the alternative could well be a catastrophic collapse in confidence in the country’s ability to control the virus and the economic, human and social disaster that would follow.”
When asked why level 4 measures were not being pushed in England, Johnson’s spokesperson said: “I would like to point to the fact that we have made it clear that people should not travel outside of level 4 areas, and it would point out the changes we have made in terms of level 4, ”he said. “We are making it clear that people should stay home and limit human interaction.”
When asked if parliament could be called in to allow angry MPs to debate the new measures, the spokesperson said this would only be done to ratify any Brexit deal. “If we need to revoke parliament for Brexit purposes, we will.”
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