British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a tightening of lockdown measures on Dec. 20 in London and surrounding counties, the U.K’s latest response to a coronavirus mutation believed to spread faster than prior COVID-19 versions.
The New York Times reported the British government “got new evidence of a variant first detected several weeks ago in southeast England, which the prime minister asserted was as much as 70% more transmissible than previous versions.” The same article also reported that “the government’s medical experts expressed alarm about its apparent infectiousness, noting that it now accounts for more than 60% of the new infections reported in London.”
The article went on to note the tightened lockdown measures now in effect are designed to cut off the capital region from the rest of England. They’re the most stringent measures the British government has taken since its initial March lockdown, reflecting concern that the new COVID-19 variant could cause rapid transmission throughout the winter months.
“When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense,” Johnson said Dec. 19, on the eve of the new lockdown measures going into effect. “We have to act on information as we have it, because this is now spreading very fast.”
The Washington Post reported that while this strain of the virus is quickly becoming the dominant one in London and other regions throughout the U.K., it at least does not appear more deadly or resistant to vaccines than prior strains. Johnson said in his press conference that this new strain “may be up to 70% more transmissible” than the previous versions.
“We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyze the available data,” said England’s chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty.
The Washington Post noted that it “was not immediately clear if the new variant had moved beyond Britain” though the New York Times’ reporting observed “viral mutations are not uncommon, and British officials said this variant had been detected in a handful of other countries, without naming them.”
The new restrictions mean that Christmas may look very different for one of the world’s largest cities. “Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus — the potential risk it poses — it is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” Johnson said, according to NPR. “In England, those living in Tier 4 areas should not mix with anyone outside their own household at Christmas.”
The Tier 4 designation, according to the U.K’s official government site, means that people living within a Tier 4 zone “must not leave or be outside of your home or garden except where you have a ‘reasonable excuse,’” which includes work and volunteering, “essential activities” (mostly related to shopping or bank errands), fulfilling legal obligations, education and childcare, and exercise.
As NPR noted, “if people want to spend time with those outside their household, it can only be one person at a time, and it needs to be outdoors” under the new restrictions. However, in a marked difference from November’s restrictions, communal worship will be allowed.
Christmas restrictions also apply outside of the Tier 4 areas, where “up to eight people from three households will be able to meet — but on Christmas Day only, rather than over the course of five days, which was the case under previous guidelines,” NPR observed.