LONDON — New year, new lockdown.
On Monday, as people returned to work and to school, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a third national lockdown for England, blaming it on a mutant strain of COVID-19, which is proving to be 50 to 70 percent more easily transmitted than the original virus.
National Health Service hospitals in England are approaching breaking point, Johnson said, with 27,000 patients, 40 percent higher than during the first COVID-19 peak in April.
“We need to do more together to bring the new variant under control,” he said in a brief address to the nation on Monday. “The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet, but we are in the last phase of the struggle. The end is in sight, and we know how to get there.”
Johnson said the country was undertaking the biggest vaccination program in its history, and that more Britons have been vaccinated so far than in the entire European Union. He said the pace of vaccinations will accelerate, and that by mid-February all over-70s, care home and social care workers, and the extremely vulnerable will have been vaccinated.
Little will change, however, for physical retail stores, many of which have been shut since mid-December due to local lockdown measures. They were also closed for all of November, with the retail lobby group New West End Company telling WWD last month that stores in central London will not reopen until the government provides them with a specific exit plan.
Earlier on Monday, Springboard, which monitors activity in physical stores, said footfall across U.K. retail destinations declined by 23.2 percent last week, the week beginning Dec. 28, compared with the previous one.
Footfall across the U.K. as a whole was 55.7 percent lower than in the same week last year. In Tier 4, high-restriction destinations, such as London and most of the southeast of England, footfall was 72.2 percent lower than in the same period last year.
As reported, much of England has been in lockdown since mid-December. On Monday, Johnson extended lockdown rules to all of England (with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland undertaking similar measures) and shut all the schools.
Schools, some of which opened on Monday, will go dark until Feb. 15 at the earliest, with some parents asked once again to homeschool their children. Johnson said the government had done everything it could to keep schools open, but could no longer take the risk of spreading the virus.
“Schools are not unsafe, but they act as vectors of transmission between households,” he said, adding that “if we don’t lock down now, the NHS will be overwhelmed in 21 days’ time.”
As of Tuesday evening, people will only be allowed outside their homes for essential shopping, for work they cannot do at home and for doctor’s appointments. Those with underlying illnesses will have to return to shielding at home.
Johnson said he is hoping to re-open schools in mid-February and start lifting lockdown restrictions if infection rates fall and vaccination numbers rise.
“I know how tough this is, I know how frustrated you are,” he said. “But we must pull together now more than ever.” Johnson reiterated his mantra from the first lockdown in spring of 2020: “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.”