With only days left before Christmas, millions of people in the United Kingdom received disheartening, though not unsurprising, news on Saturday. They were under a strict lockdown again, and would in general not be allowed to mix with other households for the next two weeks. The reason was related to a new strain of the novel coronavirus that government officials said is spreading rapidly through certain areas of the country.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that London, the capital, and much of the south and east of England was under a new stay-at-home order beginning on Sunday. These areas were already under the highest level of alert in the government’s three-tiered coronavirus alert system, but are now in a newly created fourth tier.
“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 that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” Johnson said on Saturday.
Under this new tier, non-essential businesses, such as clothing stores, gyms and movie theaters, will be ordered to close; people will be required stay home except for permitted activities; and individuals will only be allowed to meet one other person from one another household, among others. In addition, travel out of tier four areas will be sharply limited, as well as travel into a tier four area.
The move comes days after Johnson declared that it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas and after a previous announcement in which he said he still planned to relax coronavirus restrictions for the holidays. The previous plan would have created “Christmas bubbles” and would have allowed up to three households to get together from Dec. 23 to Dec. 27.
In tier four areas though, that possibility is no more. Households that do not reside in tier four areas will only be allowed to mix on Christmas day instead of the five days the government previously proposed.
When it comes to the new variant of the virus, Johnson said it was as much as 70% more transmissible than previous versions, according to the New York Times. Nonetheless, the prime minister affirmed that there was no evidence that this variant caused more severe illness or had a higher mortality.
Mutations are common in viruses and bacteria, and there have already been mutations of the novel coronavirus. British officials said that this variant had been detected in a handful of other countries, although it did not name them, according to the Times. But officials expressed alarm over this variant’s apparent infectiousness, stating that it was responsible for more than 60% of the new infections reported in London.
Dr. Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific advisor, said scientists had identified 23 changes in the new variant, which he stated was an unusually high number of changes. Among the changes were several in the spike protein that the coronavirus uses to attach itself to cells.
“This virus spreads more easily, and therefore more measures are needed to keep it under control,” Vallance said in Saturday’s press conference.
The UK said it had informed the World Health Organization that the new variant appeared to be accelerating the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, the Associated Press reported. Per the outlet, WHO officials said they had no evidence that this variant behaves differently and declared that it was similar to the one reported in mink in Europe. WHO officials will study to the strain to determine whether there is any change in the immune response it provokes in people.
Johnson’s announcement prompted similar reactions in other UK states, according to the AP. In Wales, officials decided to lock down residents beginning on Sunday, essentially prohibiting Christmas gatherings. Scotland, meanwhile, said that individuals would be placed under tier four restrictions starting on Dec. 26. Northern Ireland will lock down the country after Christmas.
“Yes, Christmas this year will be different, very different, but we must be realistic,” Johnson said. “We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so we have a better chance of protecting their lives so that we can see them at future Christmases.”