Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 19 December 2020



London Put in Emergency Lockdown as U.K. Fights New Virus Strain

  • Capital, southeast England move into new ‘Tier 4’ from Sunday
  • New strain forces Johnson to scrap five-day Christmas easing

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a full lockdown on London and large parts of southeast England in a desperate attempt to stop a new strain of coronavirus that is spreading rapidly in the U.K.

After emergency talks with his most senior officials, Johnson canceled plans to ease pandemic restrictions for five days during the holiday. Household mixing will be banned in London and the south-east and socializing restricted to just Christmas Day across the rest of England.

The premier announced a new Tier 4 will apply in the hot-spot areas around the capital from Sunday, with all non-essential shops closing and millions of people ordered to stay at home.

“When the science changes, we must change our response,” Johnson said in a news conference.

The dramatic escalation in the government’s pandemic response was triggered by a new strain of the virus that is virtually unique to the U.K. Emerging scientific evidence suggests the new variant can spread significantly more quickly than previous strains in circulation and is behind a huge surge in infections in recent days.

Covid-19 case rates nearly doubled in London over the past week, with almost 60% of these infections attributed to the new strain of the virus, according to government officials.

Tier 4 London Lockdown Rules from Dec. 20
  • People must stay at home, unless they must travel for work, education, healthcare

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that the new variant was faster spreading, and likely behind the alarming climb of case numbers in that part of the country.

“There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is underway to confirm this,” Whitty said. “Given this latest development it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission.”

As recently as Friday, Johnson refused to rule out a third U.K. lockdown to control the spread of the virus. Britain would join Italy and Austria in tightening curbs during the holiday season, with all three countries facing rapidly rising case numbers.

The situation has deteriorated dramatically across Europe, with French President Emmanuel Macron contracting the illness and countries like Italy and Germany introducing new measures during the festive period.

Unpredictable Mutations

Leaders are also grappling with another set of challenges just as vaccines are being rolled out.

Viruses tend to evolve or mutate quickly, particularly those like flu that require new vaccines to be developed each year because of changes in key proteins. SARS-CoV-2 also changes, although generally at a slower pace than some other viruses because it has a self-correcting mechanism that keeps its genetic sequence relatively stable.

Other variants in the coronavirus have been reported in the past, including one in minks, which are susceptible to the virus, that was feared to be highly transmissible and was reported to the World Health Organization. Millions of farmed mink were culled, although as of Nov. 20 the WHO said the most worrying strain linked to the animals is no longer circulating in humans.

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