EDINBURGH, Scotland—It’s only been a few weeks since people in Britain were planning a relatively normal Christmas with their families thanks to relaxed pandemic rules. Now, with the mutant coronavirus variant fueling a near vertical spike in new daily cases, huge parts of the country are starting the new year by being slammed back into the harshest of lockdowns.
The speed of the turnaround has been astonishing and terrifying. At the end of November, following a nationwide lockdown in England, Britain’s case numbers had declined to around 13,000 a day. Now the country has recorded more than 50,000 cases for six days in a row. The message to the world appears to be clear—the new variant spreads faster, and, without strict preventative measures, this will happen to you too.
Britain’s surge comes despite the planned Christmas relaxation being scrapped, schools closing down for Christmas, and the biggest city, London, being in the top tier of lockdown for two weeks. Experts have been warning for weeks that the new variant spreads so quickly that rules that may have worked last year are no longer enough. Political leaders are now scrambling to find how to knock it back, or face catastrophe.
Scotland went first. Its devolved nationalist government had already closed the border to England after Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that the new variant was running wild down south. On Monday, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced a lockdown every bit as strict as the one in spring. Her message: Stay at home, and keep your kids out of school, or we’ll end up as screwed as England.
Sturgeon has estimated that Scotland is now about four weeks behind England’s surge, but the new rules—which force Scots by law not to leave their homes except for a few essential purposes—are designed to prevent the country from spiraling out of control like its neighbors. Scotland is recording 188.3 cases per 100,000, less than half the rate of England over the past seven days, according to government figures.
Meanwhile, Johnson has been under intense pressure for prevaricating while cases in England have seen spike upon spike upon spike. That came to an end on Monday evening, with the prime minister announcing a new lockdown in an address to the nation. Most schools will be closed and citizens must stay at home except to buy necessities or exercise until at least mid-February, he said.
Asked what was taking him so long to do something, Johnson said: “What we have been waiting for is to see the impact of the tier four measures on the virus and it is a bit unclear, still, at the moment. But if you look at the numbers, there is no question that we are going to have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has admitted that the rules that had worked since spring’s lockdown are “no longer strong enough.”
Even more worryingly, though, is Hancock’s belief that the new British variant may not even be the biggest threat facing an already engulfed nation. He said Monday that he’s “incredibly worried” about a South African variant that has been deemed even more transmissible than the British one—and two cases of it have been confirmed in Britain.
Hancock told the BBC on Monday: “This is a very, very significant problem... even more of a problem than the U.K. new variant.”
One reason for that concern may be that British experts have openly queried whether the current vaccines will work on the South African mutant. John Bell, a University of Oxford professor and government vaccine adviser, has said there’s a “big question mark” as to whether the existing vaccines will work on the South African variant.
It’s clear that Britain is in a bad situation—what’s much less clear is if this is as bad as it will get, if new measures will be enough to control the virus mutant, and what happens if an even worse one takes hold.