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UK faces new, more infectious COVID strain

Alex Berry
December 19, 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that parts of the United Kingdom will go into full lockdown over Christmas. The measures come as a response to a new, rapidly spreading variant of the COVID-19 virus.

People walk past a sign advising social distancing in Covent Garden in London
Johnson has announced a slew of new measures for the UK which will come into effect on SundayImage: Kirsty O'Connor/empics/picture alliance

Christmas in parts of the United Kingdom will be much more limited than planned following the discovery of a more infectious COVID-19 strain, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday.

"It is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned," the prime minister said during a press conference.

The announcement followed the discovery of a new variant of the virus which is much more infectious, prevalent in parts of London and the south of England.

The new strain "may be up to 70% more transmissable" according to early data, Johnson explained, leading him to conclude that "we have to act." In response to the threat, the UK is upgrading it three-tier restrictions system which replaced the nationwide lockdown earlier this month.

What are the new restrictions?

In his statement, Johnson announced a slew of new measures for the UK which will come into effect on Sunday:

  • A new Tier 4 which would impose restrictions similar to the national lockdown, including the closure of all nonessential services and tight restrictions on going outside.
  • A call for people across the country to avoid travel, except under special circumstances, so that the new strain cannot spread.
  • People in Tier 4 areas may not mix with anyone outside their household or support bubble, including for Christmas Day.
  • Special rules for Christmas for the rest of the country — allowing up to three households to meet — will be limited to just December 25 rather than the previously planned five days.

The prime minister defended the action saying that "many of our European friends and neighbors are being forced to take similar action."

London under strict measures

The government is imposing the new Tier 4 measures in areas where the presence of the new strand has been confirmed, which include London and parts of south and southeast England.

Reporting from London, DW's Charlotte Chelsom-Pill said the UK government had gone back on its word after presenting the holidays as a chance to relax and loosen the restrictions.

"It was just this week that Prime Minister Boris Johnson said canceling Christmas here in the UK would be 'inhumane'," she said. "Now, with the news of this new variant, that is indeed essentially what he has done."

Immunization program in full swing

Johnson assured the country that the new strain is no more lethal, nor is it more resistant to the vaccine, but it has been driving up infections in parts of the country.

Data from the new variety had already been sent to the World Health Organization, but Johnson took the opportunity to point out that the UK was more able than most countries to "identify new strains like this."

The prime minister — who was hospitalized with the virus earlier in the year — also urged people in Britain to take the vaccine when called up, telling them to "join the 350,000 people across the UK who have already had their first dose."