London faces months of tough restrictions as new coronavirus strain spreads

Johnson under pressure to furnish clear exit strategy from cycle of Covid-19 lockdowns

A number of European countries have cancelled flights from Britain in response to a mutant, fast-spreading strain of coronavirus that has driven up infections in London and the southeast of England.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said that tough new restrictions including the closure of most businesses and an instruction to stay at home could remain in place in the region for months until vulnerable groups are vaccinated against coronavirus.

“Essentially we have got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe. Given how much faster this new variant spreads it is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out,” he told Sky News.

Although the new variant is estimated to spread 70 per cent more quickly than other strains of coronavirus, British scientific experts have not found evidence that it is more virulent. Britain on Sunday recorded 35,928 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily figure since the pandemic began, and 326 new deaths.


"This sharp and sudden increase is of serious concern. Most of the new cases reported today are concentrated in London and the southeast, although it is too early to tell if this is linked to the new variant," Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England (PHE), said.

Tier 4 restrictions

Boris Johnson announced the new Tier 4 restrictions on Saturday afternoon, triggering a rush to London's railway stations as passengers packed into crowded trains to leave the city before the rules came into effect on Sunday morning. About 18 million people living in London and the southeast of England are now prohibited from leaving their homes except for essential purposes including exercise and cannot meet members of other households indoors.

All but essential shops are closed and, although communal worship will be allowed, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby advised churchgoers to avoid mingling and to keep their distance from the choir. A planned relaxation of the rules to allow up to three households to mix for five days around Christmas has been cancelled in the Tier 4 areas and dramatically scaled back elsewhere in England and Wales.

France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands were among the European countries to stop flights from Britain, and passengers will not be able to cross to the continent on the Eurostar or by ferry. Scotland said it would double the number of police officers on its border with England to deter people from entering the country and British Transport Police increased its patrols of rail links from London.

‘Merry little Christmas’

Labour leader Keir Starmer said he supported the government's decision but criticised the prime minister for waiting so long to change course on easing restrictions for Christmas.

“He told the country to go ahead and have a merry little Christmas. Told people in London and the southeast to carry on shopping. And to make plans to see families. And yet, three days later he tells millions of families to rip up those plans. And introduces further restrictions,” he said.

“What I want to know this morning, and what everyone across the country wants to know this morning is this: How on earth did this happen?”

Mr Johnson also came under fire from Conservative backbenchers demanding a clear exit strategy from lockdowns and restrictions. Former chief whip Mark Harper said the new restrictions should be put to a vote in parliament at the earliest opportunity.

“If the government wants the support of the public and parliament, it must publish a clear exit strategy from this nightmarish cycle of damaging lockdowns and restrictions,” he said.

“As we deliver the vaccine to the most-at-risk groups around the country, the public needs to see how this will translate into a return to normal life, with restrictions being lifted at every stage, and a clear road map to all our freedoms being restored as soon as this work is done.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times