England’s lockdown could last into March, says minister

LONDON (AFP) – England yesterday entered a strict national lockdown aimed at stemming a steep rise in virus cases that a senior government minister warned could last into March.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the measures, including school closures and a ban on leaving home except for exercise and essential shopping, on Monday evening. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told Sky News yesterday morning that he could not say precisely when the lockdown, announced as lasting six weeks, would be lifted, warning of “very, very difficult weeks”.

The measures will be reviewed from February 15, he said, but the government cannot “predict with certainty” whether they will be lifted then, said Gove.

“I think it is right to say that as we enter March we should be able to lift some of these restrictions but not necessarily all,” he added.

The measures began in England yesterday morning and will become law in the early hours of today.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also bringing in strict lockdowns, including school closures.

A pedestrian walks past the shuttered entrance of a closed-down store in Liverpool, north west England. PHOTO: AFP

The lockdown comes as the surge of a new strain of the virus that is said to be more infectious threatens to overwhelm hospitals, despite the rollout of two vaccines, including the UK’s own Oxford University/AstraZeneca shot from Monday, bringing hopes of beating the virus in the coming months.

Opinion polls suggested a majority of the public now support the new lockdown, and the closure of schools, despite criticism of the government’s handling of the outbreak response.

“I’m perfectly fine with it,” Jenny Heath, 42, who works in marketing, told AFP in central London.

“There is nothing that can be done, there’s no way around it and it’s just a short-term solution to ease what’s happening in the National Health Service (NHS).”

The UK has already vaccinated over one million people and major companies have pledged help with organisation.

Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco has offered assistance that could include refrigerated lorries to distribute the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which can be kept at normal fridge temperatures.

Another supermarket, Morrisons, said three of its carparks would be used for vaccinations from next week.

High street pharmacy chain Boots is also to carry out vaccinations.

A total of 58,784 people tested positive in the UK on Monday, with cases in the last seven days up 50 per cent on the previous week.