Millions of people must cancel their Christmas gatherings and most stores must close in London and much of southern England, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday.
Johnson said on Saturday that the capital and large areas in southern England that are already under the highest level of the UK government’s three-tier coronavirus alert system will move to a new Level 4 which requires all Non-essential indoor shops, hair salons and entertainment venues close after the end of business hours on Saturday.
“It is with great regret that I must tell you that we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” Johnson said.
He said he concluded that he “had no other choice” and that people must sacrifice themselves this Christmas to have a better chance of protecting the lives of their loved ones.
Household mixing will not be allowed on Level 4, except under very limited conditions outdoors in public places.
Travel in and out of Level 4 areas will not be allowed unless essential.
In the rest of England, people will be able to gather in Christmas bubbles for just one day instead of five, as the government originally planned.
The changes disrupt the plans of millions of people who were hoping to reunite with family and friends next week and force dozens to review their travel plans at the last minute.
Before Saturday, government officials said they would allow small private meetings to take place.
While restaurants, pubs, bars and theaters in much of England are already closed and ready for a gloomy Christmas, all shops in Level 4 areas that do not sell food or medicine received only a notice of hours that they must close. after Saturday until officials review the situation on December 30.
The British Retail Consortium said it was “tremendously unfortunate news”, especially two weeks after a month-long shutdown in England ended and at the height of the peak retail period of the year.
“Retailers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds to make stores safe for customers and staff,” said Helen Dickinson, executive director of the trade body.
“For businesses, the government’s stop-start approach is deeply useless.”
In announcing the more restrictive category, Johnson said that a new, fast-moving variant of the coronavirus that is more than 70% more transmissible than existing strains appears to be driving the rapid spread in London and southern England.
While London did relatively well in controlling the virus during the fall, the city now has the highest infection rates in England.
Authorities said the new mutation accounted for about 60 percent of the capital’s cases.
“There is no evidence to suggest that it is more lethal or causes a more serious disease,” stressed the prime minister, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the UK has alerted the World Health Organization that the new variant identified this week appears to be accelerating the spread of COVID-19.
The government’s scientific advisers came to that conclusion based on preliminary modeling figures and continue to analyze the available data, he said.
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus that causes COVID-19.
But many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or the severity of symptoms.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told reporters after receiving a notification from England this week that the UN health agency “had no evidence that this variant behaves differently” and which was similar to a variant initially reported among minks in Europe.
He said scientists would study the strain of the virus to see if there might be a difference in the way it elicits an immune response in people.
In Wales, authorities said they decided to change a planned post-Christmas lockdown and that people must stay home from 12:01 am Sunday.
The move will largely eliminate Christmas gatherings in accordance with southern England rules.
The Scottish government said on Saturday that residents will be subject to Level 4 restrictions starting December 26, and a travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK will be in effect during the holiday period.
Northern Ireland has already said that a new lockdown would begin once Christmas is over.
UK officials reported another 27,052 confirmed cases on Saturday and 534 more deaths from people who tested positive in the previous 28 days.
The UK has the second highest number of COVID-19 deaths in Europe behind Italy, at 67,075.