British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to hold a news conference alongside his top scientific advisers Saturday amid anticipation he will announce a new national lockdown for England to stem a resurgence of the coronavirus that has pushed the U..K.’s total confirmed cases past 1 million.
Scientists warned COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the U.K. could soon surpass the levels seen at the outbreak’s spring peak. Johnson’s office said the late-afternoon press conference would follow a Cabinet meeting to discuss “the government’s coronavirus response.”
The government said early Saturday that no final decision on new lockdown measures had been made, but Johnson was under growing pressure to act quickly, reports AP.
London School of Hygiene epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group, said Saturday that cases were running “significantly above” a reasonable worst-case scenario drawn up by modelers.
“It is really unthinkable now, unfortunately, that we don’t count our deaths in tens of thousands from this wave,” Edmunds told the BBC. “The issue is, is that going to be low tens of thousands if we take radical action now or is that going to be the high tens of thousands if we don’t?”
Official figures announced Saturday recorded 21,915 new cases confirmed in the last 24 hours, bringing Britain’s total since the start of the pandemic to 1,011,660. Britain’s official death toll from the coronavirus is 46,555, the highest in Europe, with 326 new deaths announced Saturday.
The United States, India, Brazil, Russia, France, Spain, Argentina and Colombia have also recorded more than 1 million cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Scientists say the true number of cases is much higher because not everyone with the virus is tested.
Johnson has introduced a system of local restrictions for England based on levels of infection. But scientists say it has not been enough to tame a surge of COVID-19 cases, and Britain is likely to join other European countries such as France, Germany and Belgium in imposing a second lockdown.
Any new lockdown would likely see non-essential businesses close and people told to stay mostly at home, though schools would remain open.
The measures would apply to England. Other parts of the U.K. set their own public health measures, with Wales and Northern Ireland already effectively in lockdown and Scotland under a set of tough regional restrictions.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Saturday that for now people in Scotland should not travel to or from England, “except for essential purposes.”
Lucy Powell, business spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, accused the government of “dithering” and said the country was now facing a longer lockdown than if Johnson had acted sooner.
But Johnson is also under pressure from some members of his Conservative Party, who oppose tighter restrictions because of the economic damage they would cause. Any new lockdown will need Parliament’s approval.
Owners of businesses that have struggled to get back on their feet since the first lockdown was eased said the impact of new closures would be devastating.
A government program that has paid the wages of millions of furloughed employees during the pandemic ends Saturday, replaced by less-generous measures that are likely to bring a surge in unemployment.
“People have borrowed up to the hilt and spent money in order to get COVID-secure,” said Kate Nicholls of pub and restaurant industry group Hospitality U.K. “There is no spare capacity in the tank to be able to fund a lockdown, even for three to four weeks.”
The U.K. is recording more than 20,000 new coronavirus infections a day, and government statisticians say the true figure is far higher. The Office for National Statistics estimated Friday that 1 in 100 people in England, well over half a million, had the virus in the week to Oct. 23.
Jeremy Farrar, director of medical research charity the Wellcome Trust and a government adviser, urged swift action to avoid many more deaths.
“The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid,” he tweeted. “The second-best time is now.”