LONDON - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is defending plans to impose a nationwide lockdown beginning Thursday, warning that a failure to act could cause up to twice as many deaths this winter as during the first wave in the spring.
The country is recording several hundred COVID-19 deaths and at least 20,000 new coronavirus infections every day. Government scientists say infection rates are exceeding worst-case scenarios modeled just weeks ago.
Johnson offered a stark warning to British lawmakers in Parliament Monday.
“To those in this House who believe we should resist further national measures, let me spell out the medical and moral disaster we face,” Johnson told members of Parliament. “If we allow our health system to be overwhelmed, exactly as the data now suggests, then that would not only be a disaster for thousands of COVID patients, because their survival rates would fall, we would also reach a point where the NHS was no longer there for everyone. The sick would be turned away because there was no room in our hospitals — that sacred principle of care for anyone who needs it, whoever they are and wherever, whenever they need it, could be broken for the first time in our lives."
Johnson said Britain’s lockdown would end as soon as the data allowed.
“Let me stress that these restrictions are time-limited. After four weeks on Wednesday, the 2nd of December, they will expire, and we intend to return to a tiered system on a local and regional basis, according to the latest data and trends, and the House will have a vote to agree the way forward,” the British leader said Monday.
Despite some opposition from lawmakers in his own Conservative Party, the new lockdown measures are expected to be voted through on Wednesday with the help of opposition Labour Party lawmakers.
The nationwide lockdown will force all nonessential shops and services, including pubs and restaurants, to close their doors for at least four weeks with people once again encouraged to work from home. However, schools and universities will stay open in contrast with the spring lockdown.
The prime minister had until now resisted calls for a second lockdown despite sharply rising infection rates through September and October.
Over two-thirds of Britons support the measures, according to a YouGov poll published Monday. Many scientists say it remains to be seen whether the new measures will be enough to bring the pandemic under control.
“Particularly with schools, there is some evidence that older children are drivers of infection,” said Dr. Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading. “So, keeping those schools open means that driving down the number of infections in the U.K. will be more difficult than it otherwise would have been. So, we’ll see what effect that has over the coming month.”
The government has extended its furlough scheme, which pays 80% of workers’ wages at firms hit by the lockdown, alongside grants for businesses forced to close and additional support for some self-employed workers.
During the first lockdown, the British economy shrunk by a fifth. Many companies rely on Christmas trading to boost profits, and there are fears of further economic pain.
“We're just going to end up going through this weird cycle of closing and opening and closing and opening,” London bartender Marshall Seyler told Reuters. “And people are just going to continue to lose their jobs and rely on government support to pay their rent.”
This time there is also greater political opposition. Nigel Farage, widely seen as the architect of Britain’s exit from the European Union, announced plans Monday to rebrand his Brexit Party into the Reform Party, with opposition to the lockdown its central theme. Farage is not an MP and his party does not hold any parliamentary seats, but analysts say Conservative MPs are nervous that his message could appeal to some voters.
The World Health Organization said this week that Europe is once again the epicenter of the pandemic. France and Belgium have imposed nighttime curfews in addition to monthlong lockdowns as infections surge.
In Spain, protesters clashed with police amid lockdown measures in several regions. Germany and Italy, along with several other European countries, have imposed tighter restrictions.
The hope is that locking down now will mean an easing of the rules for Christmas. However, if infection rates remain high, governments say the lockdowns could last for several more weeks.