Over 38 Million People in England Face Highest Virus Curbs


More than 38 million people in England will be ordered to comply with the toughest level of coronavirus restrictions from Saturday after ministers acted to slow a surge in infections.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said more parts of the east and southeast of England will face the toughest rules -- meaning 68% of England’s population will be under tier 3, 30% in tier 2, and just 2% in the lowest tier 1.

The move is another huge blow to the hospitality industry ahead of Christmas, as tier 3 means pubs, restaurants, bars and indoor entertainment venues must close.

“Businesses will have bought stock which will now go to waste and more people will lose work at a stressful time,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive officer of the UKHospitality industry group. “Hotels are now facing a deluge of short-notice cancellations because of the tightening of restrictions. What was already looking like a bleak Christmas is now looking like a total write-off.”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said the government’s job support program, which pays 80% of furloughed workers wages, will be extended by a month to the end of April. The government’s state-backed loan programs for struggling businesses will also now be open until the end of March, rather than January.

London was moved to the highest tier on Wednesday after a rapid spread of infections across the capital in recent days. It will now be joined by the nearby counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, most of Surrey, and parts of Cambridgeshire, East Sussex and Hampshire, Hancock told the House of Commons on Thursday.

Cases increased by 46% in southeast England in the last week.

The vast majority of regions already in tier 3, including Greater Manchester in northwest England, will stay in that bracket -- prompting anger from local lawmakers including senior Conservative Graham Brady, who said the region has already been in “severe restrictions” for nine months.

The southwest city of Bristol and nearby north Somerset will move down to tier 2, and the West Midlands county of Herefordshire will drop to the lowest tier 1.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is going ahead with plans to let people celebrate with two other households over five days at Christmas, despite doctors warning the relaxation will lead to a spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The public must “exercise a high degree of personal responsibility” and “avoid contact with elderly people wherever possible,” Johnson said on Wednesday.

Hancock said people must continue to “be cautious” as the U.K. rolls out a coronavirus vaccine.

“We’ve come so far, we mustn’t blow it now,” he told Parliament. “I regret having to take the action that we have to take. I deem it necessary and there is a strong view right across government that these actions are necessary.”

Battle ahead

Johnson faces a looming battle with his own lawmakers when the restrictions are put to a vote at the end of January, with increasing numbers opposed to his coronavirus strategy.

Conservative MP Stephen McPartland said on Twitter it is “ridiculous” that his Hertfordshire district had been moved into tier 3. “Totally unacceptable and clearly shows I was right to vote against a second lockdown and tier system,” he wrote.

Steve Baker, a former minister and deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of skeptical rank-and-file lawmakers, said the government “must now show how they will lift restrictions as the vaccine rolls out.”

Teaching unions hit out at the government for announcing Thursday that high schools in England will have a staggered return in January, with some pupils learning online during the first week. Ministers said this will allow schools to set up a new mass testing program.

The National Education Union said making the announcement at the end of term demonstrated “ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action,” and the government has failed to understand the “fundamental issues” involved in testing secondary school pupils.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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