Johnson Considers Locking Down More of England to Curb Virus

Boris Johnson’s government is examining whether to put more of England in lockdown to counter a faster-spreading coronavirus variant.

Ministers met Wednesday to discuss what steps may be needed to tackle a rise in cases driven by the new Covid-19 strain, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock will hold a press conference at 3 p.m. in Downing Street, a health official said. The variant has been spreading outside London and southeast England, which were placed into England’s highest Tier 4 restrictions last weekend.

The government “won’t hesitate” to adjust the tiers if needed, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News earlier.

While Jenrick said changes won’t be made before Christmas, a person familiar with the matter said ministers are debating raising most areas of England not in the highest restrictions by one level in the four-tier system. The changes would take effect the evening of Christmas Day, the person said.

Applying an effective lockdown more widely would be a significant blow to Johnson. He has faced criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, most recently after a surge in cases linked to the new strain forced a U-turn on his plan to significantly relax social-distancing rules over Christmas. The prime minister is facing growing calls to mover faster to curb the spread of the new strain.

“The number of cases is rising and the variant is spreading to other parts of the country,” Jenrick told the BBC during his media round Wednesday. “So we will see whether it’s necessary to do more and make sure that the tiered system is sufficiently robust for the new circumstances.”

Regional Tiers

Jenrick declined to comment on which areas may face tougher restrictions. He also didn’t rule out a full national lockdown in England, though he said the government is committed to the tier system because the scale of the outbreak varies across the country.

“That’s the localized, proportionate way to handle the virus,” he told ITV.

Johnson Considers Locking Down More of England to Curb Virus

The new coronavirus variant, which emerged in southeast England in September, has alarmed scientists and governments around the world because early analysis suggests it may be as much as 70% more transmissible than other circulating strains. Countries including France temporarily suspended travel from the U.K. in response.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday said the variant is “out of control” and suggested the parts of England placed into Tier 4 would have to stay at the level until a vaccine has been rolled out. U.K. Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance warned Monday more regions face tighter restrictions as a result.

‘Country on Fire’

For Johnson’s government, the surge in cases has taken the gloss off a year-end news cycle ministers hoped would be focused on the roll-out of vaccines, after the U.K. became the first Western nation to approve the use of a shot developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE.

Now, the focus is again on whether the country’s National Health Service is at risk of being overwhelmed, and whether the government should have taken action sooner when the data started to show a surge in cases.

According to the person familiar with the government’s deliberations, even places in the lowest restrictions, such as Cornwall, may go up a tier. There’s also some discussion about lifting areas in Tier 2 that neighbor Tier 4 regions into the highest level.

The whole of England should be placed into Tier 4, Christina Pagel, professor of Operational Research at University College, London, told Times Radio on Wednesday.

“If we just wait and we let it spread to the north, where things are much more under control, then the whole country is on fire,” she said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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