U.K. Faces Harder Lockdown Restrictions as Covid Infections Soar
(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned he may tighten the coronavirus lockdown if people don’t follow the rules as his government backed tougher enforcement.
Any “complacency” about the disease is misplaced, Johnson said, even though an immunization program is well underway and 2.2 million people have received shots so far.
But he risked undermining his own appeal to the public to stay home and act responsibly when it emerged he had taken a bike ride 7 miles across London on Sunday.
“Of course, if we feel that things are not being properly observed, then we may have to do more,” Johnson said during a visit to a vaccination center in a sports stadium in Bristol, southwest England, Monday. The vaccine roll-out is a “race against time,” with the country at a “very perilous moment” as infection rates soar, he said.
Britain is facing its toughest period of the pandemic, with hospital admissions up 22% in a week to more than 32,000, and the death toll now more than 80,000. Last week Johnson announced a third national lockdown, a move that threatens to push the U.K. into another recession and compound the damage of the first lockdown, which caused the deepest contraction for 300 years.
The vaccination program is the key to the economic recovery, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told lawmakers Monday.
The government aims to start relaxing restrictions after Feb. 15, the target date by when Johnson wants all 15 million of the most vulnerable people and their carers to have been given at least one immunization dose.
Even though Britain is far ahead of other European countries in the rollout of vaccines, a new more contagious variant of the disease is pushing the health service to breaking point. Medical advisers and officials are growing increasingly concerned the public is not keeping to the rules, and that hospitals will soon be overwhelmed.
Johnson said the lockdown rules need to be enforced properly in food stores and urged people to think carefully before leaving home for any reason. Hospitals are under intense pressure from a surge in Covid-19 cases, with oxygen supplies running short in some areas, he said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said everyone shares responsibility for ensuring the rules are obeyed and praised store chain Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc for saying it will refuse entry to anyone not wearing a mask without a specific exemption.
“I am delighted that the police are stepping up their enforcement, but it isn’t just about the government and the rules we set, or the police and the work that they do, it’s about how everybody behaves,” he told a press conference. “I applaud the action Morrisons has taken today,” he said. “That’s the right approach.”
The premier’s office faced questions over his own action after London’s Evening Standard newspaper reported Johnson was seen cycling around the Olympic Park, 7 miles east of his official residence, at about 2 p.m. Sunday. Official government guidance allows people to leave their homes for the purpose of taking exercise but advises that people should stay within their “local area.”
Hancock said long bike rides and walks of 7 miles are allowed under the rules.
But the episode threatens to reignite a row over the behavior of Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings, who was accused of breaking lockdown rules last spring by driving more than 250 miles out of London when the country was being told to stay at home. Johnson’s office did not immediately respond to requests to comment on his trip.
In other developments:
- Sunak warned the country’s third lockdown, which began last week, means “the economy is going to get worse before it gets better”
- The NHS said the full impact of relaxing the rules over Christmas has still not yet been seen in case rates
- 40% of over-80s have had at least one vaccine shot, with a total of 2.6 million shots delivered so far
- The government published its vaccines delivery plan, promising to vaccinate tens of millions of people by the spring, with “at least” 2 million injections carried out each week at more than 2,700 vaccination sites across the U.K.
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