Damning new evidence presented to the Prime Minister by scientists over the last 24 hours have left him feel he has no choice but to take urgent action. The lockdown will come into effect tomorrow but the public is being urged to immediately start following the guidance.
In a televised address to the nation, the Prime Minister announced a return to square one, with restrictions tougher than those currently in place in Tier 4 areas and set to largely mirror those introduced at the start of the pandemic last March.
He said: “With most of the country already under extreme measures, it is clear that we need to do more, together, to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out.
“In England, we must therefore go into a national lockdown which is tough enough to contain this variant.
“That means the Government is once again instructing you to stay at home.”
The Prime Minister said the public would only be allowed to leave the house for certain exceptions including shopping for essentials and exercise.
Police will be given legal powers to enforce the draconian measures.
All schools are to shut until at least February half term and will only remain open for children of key workers and those from vulnerable families, while exams in the summer will not go ahead as planned.
University students are told not to return to campuses and for the vast majority of courses to be delivered online throughout the lockdown.
Mr Johnson said he “completely understands the inconvenience and distress” the announcement of the closure of schools will cause on what was the first day of term after the Christmas break.
He said he was determined to keep schools open but had been forced to act following the surge in the number of coronavirus infections.
Today’s figures indicate 58,784 new infections have been recorded in the last 24 hours.
It is the seventh day in a row more than 50,000 infections have been registered with the case rate rising 49.8 percent over the past week.
At a meeting of the Government’s “Covid-O” taskforce earlier today, the Prime Minister was warned on December 29 a staggering 80,664 people tested positive for the virus.
Hospital admissions have also surged past the peak of the first wave of the pandemic with 26,626 covid patients in hospitals – 40 percent higher than the highest point last Spring.
On April 12 there were 18,974 patients being treated for Covid in hospital.
Today the four Chief Medical Officers from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recommend moving UK from Covid-19 alert level 4 to level 5.
The alert level is the highest warning and means there is a “risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”.
Today is the first time since the start of the pandemic the alert has been raised to the highest level.
In a joint statement the Chief Medical Officers said: “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.”
The sharp rise in infections has been blamed on a new strain of the virus which transmits more easily.
Scientists believe the mutant strain is up to 50 percent more contagious.
Mr Johnson said that the weeks ahead would be the “hardest yet” but added that he believed the country was entering “the last phase of the struggle”.
Placing all hope on the UK’s vaccination programme to return life to normal, he said: “We are now rolling out the biggest vaccination programme in our history.
“So far, we in the UK have vaccinated more people than the rest of Europe combined.
“With the arrival today of the UK’s own Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine, the pace of vaccination is accelerating.”
He added: “If we succeed in vaccinating all those groups, we will have removed huge numbers of people from the path of the virus.
“And of course, that will eventually enable us to lift many of the restrictions we have endured for so long.”
Following the announcement, Conservative MP and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who had earlier called for stronger lockdown measures, tweeted: “Tough measures announced tonight but thank you Boris Johnson for doing what is necessary to save lives and get the virus under control.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who last night demanded the Prime Minister announce a lockdown within 24 hours said Mr Johnson had made the right decision.
He said: “We have called on the Government to take this step. I don’t want to quarrel at this stage.
“I think the measures the Prime Minister has outlined are necessary.
“We will support them and I think what the country wants to see is everybody pulling together to do our level best to get through this.”