London Hit by Toughest Covid Restrictions After Cases Surge
Pedestrians walk along Oxford Street in London, U.K. (Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)

London Hit by Toughest Covid Restrictions After Cases Surge

Millions of Londoners will be ordered to comply with England’s toughest coronavirus rules from Wednesday, as U.K. authorities warned a “new variant” of the disease may be driving a rapid rise in cases.

Government scientists at the Porton Down military research facility are analyzing the new variant, which Health Secretary Matt Hancock said may be linked to the recent fast spread of infections in the capital.

As he announced tighter curbs on the city of about 9 million people, Hancock said he understands the measures will be “difficult,” but insisted they are “essential” to protect lives and jobs in the longer term.

“I know it will mean plans disrupted, and that for businesses affected, this will be a very significant blow,” Hancock said. “This action is absolutely essential, not just to keep people safe, but because as we’ve seen early action can help prevent more damaging and longer lasting problems later.”

The switch to tier 3 rules from tier 2 in London and parts of southeast England will see pubs, bars and restaurants closed, except for serving takeaway meals. Theaters and museums will also shut to the public.

While shops are allowed to keep trading, the measures prompted dismay from hospitality and entertainment industry leaders.

Devastating Panic

UKHospitality Chief Executive Kate Nicholls said there is “still no hard evidence” that restaurants and bars drive infection rates, while theater producer Cameron Mackintosh said the move is “devastating” and “smacks of panic.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson ordered schools to stay open and threatened legal action after the council in Greenwich, southeast London, told head-teachers to move learning online for the final three days of term after a surge of cases in the borough.

Hancock said more than 1,000 cases of a new variant of coronavirus had been identified, mainly in southeast England, and “numbers are increasing rapidly.”

He said the World Health Organization had been notified, adding: “There is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause more serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.”

Incremental Mutation

As coronavirus has spread from person to person, it has changed thousands of times. The vast majority of these changes are incremental, without what’s known as a functionally significant mutation, though there’s been previous debate over research showing it may have evolved to become more contagious.

The WHO said it is aware of the genetic variant. “This virus evolves and changes over time and we’ve seen different variants emerge,” WHO Executive Director Michael Ryan said. The question is whether there is significance in public health terms since mutations of the virus are “quite common.”

The WHO is working with a network of international laboratories to see if this variant is becoming more prevalent around the world, he added.

The move to put London into tier 3 comes just days before the U.K. is given a five-day relaxation of the rules for Christmas and Hancock faced questions over the wisdom of allowing people to travel across the country to visit elderly relatives.

Between Dec. 23 and 27, people will be free to mingle with two other households indoors, which doctors have warned will lead to a rise in infections and hospitalization rates in January and February.

Hancock told lawmakers he recommends people to “exercise caution” over Christmas, particularly older people, who are more vulnerable to the virus.

‘Overwhelming pressure’

NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, welcomed the tier 3 move. Chief executive Chris Hopson said hospitals are already seeing “significantly more pressure than expected” this winter as a result of increasing Covid-19 admissions.

“That is a bad position to be in as winter takes hold,” Hopson said. “It’s right to act now to stem the spread of the virus to head off overwhelming pressure in January and February.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan supported calls for schools to close early for Christmas and said face coverings should be compulsory in crowded shopping streets. He said putting the capital into tier 3 was “incredibly disappointing” for businesses and demanded more financial support for sectors affected.

“The worst thing for London’s businesses and our economy would be yet another full lockdown in the new year,” Khan added. “That’s why I urge Londoners to follow the tier 3 rules.”

The impact of the pandemic also hit home for lawmakers after a spike in case in Parliament. Officials said non-essential staff in the House of Commons and House of Lords should stay home from Tuesday to try to stem the spread of the disease.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.