Millions hit by tighter UK virus lockdown

·2-min read

The British government has extended its toughest coronavirus restrictions to more than three-quarters of England's population, saying a fast-spreading new variant of the virus has reached most of the country.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that at midnight local time on Wednesday the government's top infection-warning level, Tier 4, would be expanded beyond London and the southeast to cover large parts of central, northern and southwest England, including the major cities of Manchester and Birmingham.

The move will severely curtail New Year's Eve celebrations in parts of England that are home to 44 million people, or 78 per cent of the population.

In England's Tier 4, most people are advised to stay at home, barred from mixing with members of other households either indoors or out, non-essential shops are shut and restaurants and bars can only offer takeaway.

The other parts of the United Kingdom - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - have also implemented strong lockdown measures.

Hancock said Wednesday's authorisation of a second vaccine for use in the UK was good news, but "sharply rising cases and the hospitalisations that follow demonstrate the need to act where the virus is spreading".

He told MPs in the House of Commons that the medicines regulator's approval of the vaccine developed by British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford University "brings forward the day on which we can lift the restrictions".

"But we must act to suppress the virus now, especially as the new variant makes the time between now and then even more difficult," he said.

Hospitals in the worst-hit areas of London and southern England are becoming increasingly overstretched, with ambulances unable to unload patients at some hospitals where all the beds are occupied.

There are now more people in hospitals with COVID-19 in the UK than at the first peak of the outbreak in April.

Britain has recorded more than 71,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths, the second-highest toll in Europe after Italy.

The country on Tuesday reported a record number of new confirmed cases.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and another already in use developed by US drugmaker Pfizer in conjunction with German company BioNTech meant "there are plenty of reasons for people to be optimistic about the spring".