People wait to board trains with destinations including the Midlands, north of England and Scotland at Euston railway station in London, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. The British government plans to relax restrictions on socializing and travel for five days before and after Christmas. With infections rising in the U.K., which has Europe's second-highest coronavirus death toll after Italy, there are concerns about a possible fresh surge of cases and deaths after the holidays. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

U.K. orders shops to close, nixes holiday mixing in London

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Christmas gatherings can’t go ahead and non-essential shops must close in London and much of southern England, as he imposed a new, higher level of coronavirus restrictions on the region to curb rapidly spreading infections.

Johnson said Saturday that the capital and other areas in southern England currently under Tier 3, the highest level of coronavirus restrictions, will move to an even stricter new Tier 4 that requires non-essential shops, hairdressers and indoor leisure venues to close after the end of business hours Saturday.

Johnson also said that a planned five-day easing of socializing rules that would allow up to three households to meet in “Christmas bubbles” will be cancelled for Tier 4 areas. No mixing of households will be allowed except for under very limited conditions outside in public places.

He said that in the rest of England, people will be allowed to meet in Christmas bubbles for just one day instead of from Dec. 23 to Dec. 27, as originally planned.

“It is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot proceed with Christmas as planned,” Johnson said.

He said he concluded there was “no alternative open to me” and people must sacrifice this Christmas to have a better chance of protecting the lives of loved ones.

“I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year, and how important it is for grandparents to see their grandchildren,” Johnson said. “But when the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defence.”

In announcing the new Tier 4 category, which mirrors many of the limits on public activity that were in place during the U.K.’s nationwide lockdown earlier this year, Johnson cited the rising infection rates in much of southern England. England’s chief medical officer said Saturday that based on preliminary modeling data, a government virus advisory group thinks a new strain of the virus identified this week spreads more quickly.

“We have said throughout this pandemic that we must all be guided by science. When the science changes, we must change our response,” he said.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held emergency talks with his Cabinet on Saturday to discuss strategies to curb the spread of COVID-19 as the government’s scientific advisors said a new variant of the coronavirus was accelerating the spread of infections.

England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said that based on preliminary modeling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in southern England, a government virus advisory group thinks the new strain can spread more quickly.

There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain, which England’s public health agency identified through genomic surveillance., is more deadly or that it affects vaccines and treatments, he added.

“We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyze the available data to improve our understanding,” Whitty said in a statement.

Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands different of mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. But many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.

Even when a variant seems to be showing up more often someplace, it can be purely by chance. Scientists would need to study the genetic changes to see if they are influencing disease spread.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, told reporters after receiving notification from England this week that the U.N. health agency had “no evidence this variant behaves differently” and that it was similar to a variant initially reported among mink in Europe. She said scientists would study the virus strain to see if there might be any difference in how it prompts an immune response in people.

Johnson is expected to announce to announce changes to his country’s current infection-prevention restrictions when he holds a news conference later Saturday.

London now has the highest case rates in England, and this week moved under the highest level of coronavirus restrictions in the country’s three-tier alert system. Most of southern England joined the capital in an expansion of Tier 3 rules Saturday, meaning a total of 38 million people — or 68% of England’s population — are living under the toughest rules.

Under the restrictions, people cannot socialize indoors or in most outdoor places, and restaurants and pubs only can offer takeaway service. Shops remain open, however.

The government has said restrictions on socializing will be eased from Dec. 23 to Dec. 27 to allow people to travel and celebrate Christmas with family and friends. The temporary holiday rules allow a maximum of three households to meet in a “Christmas bubble,” though Johnson urged residents to keep their celebrations small and short.

The planned relaxation of rules has raised increasing concerns given that infections are already climbing sharply in many places.

The prime minister held an unscheduled meeting on Friday evening to discuss the latest evidence about the mutant strain with officials. He has refused to rule out the prospect of a third national lockdown for England.

Wales and Northern Ireland, which have their own devolved governments and independent rules for controlling the virus, have already announced fresh lockdowns once Christmas is over.

U.K. officials reported another 28,507 confirmed cases on Friday, and 489 deaths of people within 28 days of testing positive for the virus. The U.K. has Europe’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll, behind Italy.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Demonstrators during a coronavirus anti-lockdown protest in Parliament Square, central London, Saturday Dec. 19, 2020. (Kirsty O'Connor/PA via AP)

Police and demonstrators during a coronavirus anti-lockdown protest in Parliament Square, central London, Saturday Dec. 19, 2020. (Kirsty O'Connor/PA via AP)

Just Posted

President Donald Trump speaks near a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Alamo, Texas. (Delcia Lopez/The Monitor via AP)
Trump bids farewell to Washington, hints of comeback

‘We will be back in some form’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday, January 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada in touch with Biden admin about disputed oil pipeline

Premier Jason Kenney says ‘rescinding the Keystone XL border crossing permit would damage the Canada-US bilateral relationship’

The wreckage of a fatal crash involing the Humboldt Broncos hockey team bus outside Tisdale, Sask., is seen on Saturday, April, 7, 2018. A number of Broncos parents are angry there has been little action on seatbelts on buses since the crash that killed 16 people and injured 13. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
‘End of the road:’ Truck driver in Humboldt Broncos crash awaits deportation decision

Jaskirat Singh Sidhu was sentenced to eight years after pleading guilty

President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden are joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff during a COVID-19 memorial event at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
All eyes on the United States as Canadians tune in to Joe Biden’s inauguration

Thousands of National Guard troops deployed ahead of the event

Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem takes part in a news conference at the Bank of Canada in Ottawa on December 15, 2020. Canada’s central bank will update its economic forecast for the country that will offer a window when it expects a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic to take hold. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Bank of Canada to update economic outlook with first rate announcement of 2021

0.25 per cent policy rate expected to be maintained

FIL - In this Nov. 7, 2020, file photo Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks in Wilmington, Del. Harris will make history Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, when she becomes the nation’s first Black, South Asian and female vice president. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Vice-President Harris: A new chapter opens in US politics

Harris moves into the vice presidency just four years after arriving in Washington as a California senator

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole, front, picks up the puck as St. Louis Blues center Brayden Schenn defends durg the third period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
NHL pulls microchipped ‘tracking’ pucks 6 days into season

The first 44 games were played with the ‘tracking’ pucks

Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Canadian Premier League-Darren Goldstein
CPL targets season kickoff on Victoria Day Weekend, providing authorities agree

The hope is to have each of the eight teams play a normal 28-game season

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows director/writer/producer John Lee Hancock, center, and Jared Leto on the set of “The Little Things.” (Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Washington, Malek and Leto face off in ‘The Little Things’

‘The Little Things’ opens in theatres and on HBO Max on Jan. 29

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, speaks with reporters in New York after pleading not guilty to charges that he ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme to build a southern border wall. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)
Trump pardons ex-strategist Steve Bannon, dozens of others

Last-minute clemency announced after midnight on Wednesday

Winnipeg Jets left wing Nikolaj Ehlers (27) scores the game-winning goal past Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) during overtime in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Ehlers scores overtime winner as Winnipeg Jets rally for 4-3 win over Ottawa Senators

Ehlers scores overtime winner as Winnipeg Jets rally for 4-3 win over Ottawa Senators

Canadian women's soccer team member Rhian Wilkinson is seen during a training session in Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, April 21, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Former Canada Soccer coach Rhian Wilkinson joins England women’s coaching staff

Former Canada Soccer coach Rhian Wilkinson joins England women’s coaching staff

Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Canadian Premier League-Darren Goldstein **MANDATORY CREDIT**
CPL targets season kickoff on Victoria Day Weekend, providing authorities agree

CPL targets season kickoff on Victoria Day Weekend, providing authorities agree

Most Read