Johnson Mulls Second England Lockdown to Tackle Covid Surge

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Boris Johnson is mulling a month-long national lockdown across England starting next week as the coronavirus outbreak spreads faster than even his U.K. government’s worst-case scenario. Ministers are meeting later on Saturday to discuss the next steps.

Schools, universities and essential shops would be exempt from the measure if it’s implemented, according to people familiar with the plan, who asked not to be identified because a final decision has not been taken. An announcement is possible Monday for a shutdown to start later in the week, they said, though one cautioned that may change after plans leaked to the Times, which reported the restrictions could remain in place until Dec. 1.

A second national lockdown would represent a significant — and politically risky — change of plan for Johnson, who has repeatedly said his strategy of tackling local virus hot spots is preferable to economically “disastrous” blanket restrictions. Members of his own Conservative Party are strongly against the move, which also risks vindicating opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer’s calls for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown to reduce transmission.

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The timing is also problematic. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s flagship wage support program, which has protected more than 9 million jobs, is ending on Saturday. A replacement program taking effect Sunday requires firms and workers to bear more of the cost, and there are fears that hundreds of thousands of jobs could be axed over the winter.

But Johnson has repeatedly said he wants Christmas to be as close to normal as possible to give the nation a boost, and acting now to reduce infections could potentially allow the government to relax social-distancing rules and allow families to meet.

The prime minister’s own scientific advisers proposed a two-week lockdown in September, which ministers rejected at the time.

Worst-Case Scenario

The most recent Covid data also gives Johnson cover to tighten restrictions. Cases have been rising at a record pace and and hospital admissions are now exceeding even the most pessimistic projections of the government’s scientific advisory panel, papers released Friday showed.

France, Germany, Spain and Italy have also imposed partial lockdowns this month with cases rising at record rates across Europe where more than 215,000 people have died and nearly 7 million have been infected.

A member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, said the trajectory is clearly going in the wrong direction, and if it doesn’t change, the hospitals will come under pressure. The baseline of measures in the country’s strictest tier won’t be enough to get transmission rates below the critical level of 1, they person said, asking not to be named because the information is confidential.

SAGE had called in September for a two- to three-week lockdown coinciding with October school holidays to rein in transmission, but the adviser said a lockdown would now need to be longer in order to have the same effect. A national lockdown is now inevitable, the person said.

Talks Ongoing

Johnson’s Cabinet will discuss the government’s response to the pandemic at 1:30 p.m. Discussions on a national lockdown are still ongoing and no final decision had been made, according to the people familiar with the plans. Tougher regional measures known as Tier 4 restrictions are also being considered.

Cases in the U.K., where policy to fight Covid-19 is controlled separately in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, jumped by more than 24,000 on Friday and the total number of infections since the pandemic began will likely exceed 1 million as soon as Saturday. The country has Europe’s highest death toll from Covid-19 with more than 46,000 fatalities.

Wales last week adopted a “firebreak lockdown” until Nov. 9 to try to get the transmission rate down, while scientists and opposition lawmakers have long been urging Johnson to do the same for England. Scotland has said it will continue with a regional approach, though its five-tier system includes tougher measures in the worst-hit areas than England’s equivalent.

Without new restrictions, the U.K. is on course for a higher death toll than during the first wave of the pandemic, with one of the models studied suggesting deaths could reach more than 4,000 a day, the BBC reported, citing documents it saw. That’s about four times the level at the first peak of the virus in the U.K.

— With assistance by Stuart Biggs, Lisa Pham, and Melissa Cheok

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