Virus Surge Forces Johnson Into England Lockdown U-Turn

Boris Johnson ordered England into a four-week partial lockdown as a surge in coronavirus cases threatened to overwhelm the health care system, forcing the prime minister into restrictions he had sought for weeks to avoid.

Starting Thursday, all but essential shops in England will close, as will gyms, bars and restaurants, Johnson said on Saturday in a televised press conference that was delayed for several hours. Britons will only be able to leave home for specific reasons including care, exercise and work that cannot be done remotely under the plan, which is subject to a vote in Parliament. Non-work travel -- both inside England and internationally -- will be banned.

To offset the hit to the economy the government announced a new financial aid package that extends payments to furloughed workers of as much as 80% of their wages. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak had repeatedly said that assistance would end this weekend.

“We know the cost of these restrictions, the damage that they do, the impact on jobs and livelihoods and people’s mental health,” Johnson said. “But we’ve got to be humble in the face of nature.”

The prime minister was flanked by his chief medical and scientific advisers, who earlier had briefed ministers that England’s hospitals -- including the emergency facilities built during the first peak of the pandemic in the spring -- would run out of capacity in early December. Deaths would reach several thousand per day without tougher social-distancing measures, they said.

Unwanted Milestone

Johnson was addressing the nation hours after his government, which has faced intense criticism since the start of the pandemic, published data showing that virus cases in the U.K. since the outbreak began had surpassed 1 million.

Under the new restrictions:
Non-essential shops, leisure and entertainment venues will close
All pubs and restaurants will close, though takeaways and deliveries will be allowed
Schools, colleges and universities will remain open
People should only leave their homes for work, exercise, medical reasons, emergencies and to shop for food
Different households won’t be allowed to mix, except for care needs and in support bubbles. One exception will allow two people from different households to meet outdoors
Travel abroad and within Britain is only allowed for work

Though they welcome the fresh support, business lobby groups warned of the damage the lockdown measures would inflict on companies and the economy.

“These new restrictions will be a devastating blow to business communities,” said Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. “Business and market confidence have been hit hard by the unclear, stop-start approach taken by governments across the U.K. over the past eight months, with little end in sight.”

The wage payments program, which has protected 9.6 million jobs at a cost of 41.4 billion pounds ($54 billion) since March, had been intended to be replaced by a less generous program from Sunday.

Mortgage Holiday

Mortgage borrowers impacted by the pandemic will also be entitled to a six-month repayment holiday, while those who have already suspended their payments will be allowed to extend the arrangement by as much as six months without it being recorded on their credit file.

The new lockdown measures are in line with those taken by other governments in Europe, where infections are also spiking heading into winter. They’re less restrictive than the months-long curbs put in place earlier this year, when schools were closed, and are designed to allow people to keep working.

Still, the move is still politically risky for Johnson, who for weeks has pushed back against another lockdown, calling it the “nuclear” option that could be economically “disastrous.”

He focused instead on a three-tier system of restrictions in England to target localized outbreaks, even as governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which set their own virus-fighting policies, opted for tougher measures.

‘Desperately Unfair’

As recently as Friday, his deputy Dominic Raab had said it would be “desperately unfair” to impose blanket measures when infection rates are so different across the country.

The volte-face risks vindicating opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s calls for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown. He was briefed on the plan by Johnson on Saturday, as was Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle.

“I’m glad that the Government has finally taken this decision -- but it should have done so weeks ago,” Starmer said following the announcement.

In the end, the data left Johnson with little choice. Cases across the U.K. jumped by nearly 22,000 on Saturday while deaths rose another 326. Britain has Europe’s highest death toll from Covid-19 with more than 46,000 fatalities.

The National Health Service would face “extraordinary trouble” by December unless the rate of infections slows, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said in the press conference. Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said modeling showed the number of deaths could be twice as high as the first wave of the pandemic.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Johnson tried to inject some optimism, pointing to the development of rapid Covid tests he said will improve the outlook. He said he hopes families will be able to meet over Christmas -- but stopped short of making a promise.

“I can tell you tonight that the scientists may be unanimously gloomy about the immediate options,” Johnson said. “But they are unanimously optimistic about the medium and the long-term future.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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