LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he would impose tougher restrictions on England shortly to contain a rapidly escalating coronavirus outbreak and indicated that secondary schools may not reopen this month.
Cases of COVID-19 have risen sharply in Britain in recent weeks, fuelled by a new and more transmissible variant of the virus. On Sunday there were nearly 55,000 new cases and in total more than 75,000 people in the country have died with COVID-19 during the pandemic – the second highest toll in Europe.
Visiting a hospital to see the first people receive the vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, Johnson said the country faced “tough, tough” weeks to come.
“If you look at the numbers, there’s no question that we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we’ll be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the virus really surging.”
England is currently divided into four tiers of restrictions, depending on the prevalence of the virus, with the vast majority of the country in Tiers 3 and 4 where social mixing is restricted and restaurants and pubs are closed.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier that the rules in Tier 3 were clearly not working. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own tough restrictions.
With England moving back towards the strict lockdown of the first wave in March, Johnson was also asked if schools would have to close once again and return to online learning.
He said that would remain a last resort for primary schools given the social and educational damage that can be done to isolated children.
But he indicated they may need to rethink a plan to reopen secondary schools for pupils aged between 11 and 18.
“It looks as though secondary schools probably play more of a role in the spread of the epidemic than primary schools, so we’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month,” he said.
The government has spent the year trying to balance the need to shut down the country to contain the virus without hammering the economy.
The first national coronavirus lockdown in May last year prompted a 25% drop in economic output – unprecedented in modern records – leaving Britain’s economy harder hit by the pandemic than most others.
While the economy recovered partially in the third quarter, renewed lockdown measures threaten to cause a double-dip recession at the start of 2021.
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