England locks down until February due to new coronavirus strain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said England would impose a national lockdown on Monday, thanks to a new coronavirus variant that is highly contagious.

“The government is once again instructing you to stay home,” Johnson said in a nationally televised broadcast.

Johnson, who contracted the coronavirus last year and was hospitalized, warned Sunday more lockdown restrictions in England were likely in the coming weeks as the new coronavirus variant has pushed infection rates to their highest recorded levels.

The U.K. is in the midst of an acute outbreak, recording more than 50,000 new coronavirus infections a day during the last six days. On Sunday, it notched another 54,990 cases, down slightly from the previous day’s daily record of 57,725. The country also recorded another 454 virus-related deaths to take the total to 75,024. According to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the U.K. is alternating with Italy as the worst-hit European nation.

“We are entirely reconciled to do what it takes to get the virus under control. That may involve tougher measures in the weeks ahead,” Johnson said in an interview with the BBC. “Obviously, there are a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider.”

Johnson conceded that school closures, curfews and the total banning of household mixing could be on the agenda for areas under the most stress.

London and southeast England are facing extremely high levels of new infections, and there is speculation that restrictions there will have to be tightened to bring the virus under control. In some parts of the British capital and its surrounding areas, there are more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people.

Johnson’s Conservative government is using a tiered coronavirus restrictions system. Most of England is already at the highest Tier 4 level, which involves the closure of shops selling nonessential items and places such as gyms and recreation centers as well as stay-at-home instruction.

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“What we are using now is the tiering system, which is a very tough system, and alas probably about to get tougher to keep things under control,” he said. “We’ll review it and we have the prospect of vaccines coming down the tracks in their tens of millions, offering people literally life and hope.”

Keir Starmer, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, urged Johnson to bring in further national restrictions in the next day or so, though he stopped short of calling for the closure of schools as he said he didn’t want to “add to the chaos” that is likely to emerge.

“The virus is clearly out of control,” Starmer said. “We can’t allow the prime minister to use up the next two or three weeks and then bring in a national lockdown which is inevitable.”

Starmer also said it’s unavoidable that more schools will close and urged the government to come up with a plan for students and for working parents.

One area the U.K. has moved quickly is on the vaccination front. It was the first to begin vaccinating people over age 80 and health care workers on Dec. 8 with the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Last week, regulators approved another vaccine made by Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca that is cheaper and easier to use than the Pfizer vaccine. The first AstraZeneca vaccines were administered Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.