“It is clear that we need to do more to bring this new variant under control,” Johnson said. “That means the government is once again instructing you to stay at home.”
During his televised address to the nation, Johnson reimposed measures seen during the first lockdown last spring, including closures of secondary and primary schools to all except the children of key workers and vulnerable children. He added that this means it will not be “possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal,” and alternative arrangements are being put in place.
International departures are now limited to those who have “a legally permitted reason,” such as work.
Outdoor sports venues will have to close. But unlike spring’s lockdown, nurseries will not be shuttered, elite sports can go ahead, and places of worship will remain open on the basis that attendees adhere to social distancing rules.
The lockdown is expected to remain in place at least through the middle of February.
His announcement follows that of Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who announced a lockdown that will begin on midnight, Tuesday, local time. Wales and Northern Ireland — the other nations of the UK — are already in lockdown.
“Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure. There are currently very high rates of community transmission, with substantial numbers of COVID patients in hospitals and in intensive care,” UK Chief Medical Officers said in a statement on Monday.
“We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days,” UK Chief Medical Officers said, adding that the new variant, believed to have originated in the UK, has led to rising cases “almost everywhere.”
The UK government is pinning its hopes for a route out of this disaster through its Covid-19 vaccination program, which began last month. Yet the country is long way from vaccinating the millions in the top priority groups mentioned by Johnson, including people “over the age of 70, all frontline health workers and everyone who is clinically vulnerable.”
On Monday, the first doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine were administered in the UK. “The vaccine means everything to me, to my mind it is the only way to get back to normal life,” Brian William Pinker, 82, said after receiving the first shot.
But optimism over the rollout of that vaccine — described as a “real pivotal moment” by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock — was drowned out by the announcement of the new lockdown measures.
“Thanks to the miracle of science, not only is the end in sight, but we know exactly how we will get there. But for now we must, I am afraid, stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives,” Johnson said as he concluded his speech on Monday.
Johnson’s announcement follows mounting calls from public health experts, teachers’ unions and lawmakers for a more stringent lockdown.
Students in the UK were due to return to school from the Christmas break on Monday. But less than a week ago, the government announced the return to school would be delayed by two weeks for almost all high-schoolers and some primary (elementary) school children. Learning will move online.
UK opposition leader Keir Starmer impored Johnson to take tougher measures to tackle the surge “ideally today,” he told CNN affiliate ITV News, adding that Britain’s tiered system approach to restrictions “isn’t working.’
While the lockdown announcement was met with relief by many, education unions furthered their call for school staff to be prioritized for vaccinations, according to PA Media. Others complained about the lack of notice provided to parents over the immediate closure of schools.
CNN’s Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.