Johnson Hits England With Tougher Lockdown, Despite Vaccines

Boris Johnson imposed tighter restrictions on most of England as he warned of “extremely tough” months ahead in the race to roll out vaccines that can bring coronavirus under control.

From Thursday, three-quarters of the population of England -- 44.1 million people -- will be in the top tier of lockdown measures as the new strain of the virus piles pressure on hospitals already stretched to capacity by the pandemic.

The return of students to schools after the holiday is also being delayed. Primary schools will stay closed for most children aged 5-11 across two-thirds of London, and in some areas around the capital. High school pupils across the country will be kept at home for a week longer than planned, the government said.

“The hope of the vaccine and testing alone are not going to be enough for the next few weeks, and possibly longer,” the prime minister said in a TV interview. “It’s now in these very tough winter months that we really must keep focus, keep discipline.”

The spread of the new variant of the disease means more parts of England will be placed under the toughest tier 4 restrictions, requiring the closing of non-essential retail and further limiting social activity. “I know that it’s tough for people, but it has to be done,” Johnson said.

Death Toll

The measures come amid growing fears the National Health Service is at risk of being overwhelmed after the U.K. reported more than 50,000 new cases on Wednesday, with 981 daily deaths. The number of people hospitalized with coronavirus already exceeds the peak recorded during the first wave in the spring. A total of 72,548 people in the U.K. have died in the pandemic.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock updated Parliament on the restrictions on Wednesday, saying the Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West will be moved into tier 4.

While the government wants to keep schools and colleges open, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told members of Parliament the fast spread of the disease has forced ministers to change the plan to allow more time for mass testing of staff and students.

Primary schools in the worst hit areas -- including 22 of London’s 33 boroughs -- will be shut to all pupils apart from children of key workers and those from the most vulnerable backgrounds.

For teenagers in year groups due to take high school exams, face-to-face classes will resume from Jan. 11, a week later than planned. Other secondary school students will return from Jan. 18 in most areas, Williamson said.

Vaccine Hopes

On Wednesday, the U.K. medicines regulator approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for use, with the first shots set to be given from Jan. 4.

That prompted Hancock to say he’s confident the country will be out of the crisis by spring 2021. He told Parliament the approval means “everyone who wants one can get a vaccine,” adding that 530,000 AstraZeneca doses will be available to the U.K. from Monday. About one million people will have received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the end of Wednesday, the government said.

But widening the pandemic restrictions will hurt growth and increase the risk of the U.K. officially entering a double-dip recession in the first quarter of 2021. Earlier national lockdown measures pushed the economy into its deepest downturn since the Great Frost of 1709.

The Resolution Foundation said earlier this week that tighter social-distancing restrictions could make the economy 6% smaller by Easter compared with the forecast from the government’s fiscal watchdog just last month.

Any economic hit will be worsened in areas where schools close. When the government re-opened England’s schools earlier this year, the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated the move could provide a 3.3% boost to the economy and allow as many as 5% more employees to return to their workplaces.

“If you have another body blow to retailers and the service sector, especially hospitality, some of these places might close altogether,” said George Buckley, an economist at Nomura. “It could change the productive capacity of the economy forever.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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