Boris Johnson imposes an emergency London lockdown to fight a new COVID-19 strain

Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a full lockdown on London and large parts of southeast England and told the public across the country to avoid travel, 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, millions of people ordered to stay at home and all foreign travel banned except for essential purposes. Johnson urged people across England to “stay local” and not travel far. He promised the new rules will be reviewed on Dec. 30.

“When the virus changes its method of attack we must change our method of defense,” Johnson said at a news conference. “Without action the evidence suggests infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.”

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 strain 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.
* Households are largely banned from mixing, there will be no Christmas bubbles.
* All non-essential shops, indoor leisure and entertainment, personal care such as hair salons will close.
* Socializing limited—one person can meet one other from a different household, in a public space outside.
* Exceptions apply for support bubbles.
* People will be advised not to enter Tier 4 areas and residents in Tier 4 areas must not stay overnight away from home.
* Tier 4 applies to: whole of London, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, most of Surrey, Bedfordshire, Luton, Hertfordshire, most of Essex
* Rules apply for two weeks, will be reviewed on Dec. 30

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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