Boris Johnson ordered a third national lockdown for England as Downing Street warned that the NHS risked being overwhelmed by a surge in cases of the new Covid-19 strain.
In a sharp switch in position, the prime minister ordered the immediate closure of all primary and secondary schools until mid-February with a version of the lockdown that shut down England last March.
Mr Johnson warned that the country faced a very “tough” few weeks as a vaccine is gradually rolled out, with chief medical officers warning that hospitals would be swamped unless new restrictions were introduced.
“The government is once again instructing you to stay at home,” he said in a televised address. “Our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time in the pandemic”
For the next seven weeks, people will be told to stay at home except for specified purposes such as essential work or to buy food or medicines.
University students will be told not to return to their colleges until the middle of next month at the earliest, while GCSE and A-level exams this summer are expected to be cancelled.
In a joint statement, the UK’s four chief medical officers said: “We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said it was now “baked in” that the UK would see a death toll from Covid-19 that would exceed 100,000.
There were 58,784 new cases of Covid-19 reported in the UK in the latest 24-hour period, and 407 deaths.
Daily admissions of Covid-19 patients to hospitals in England surpassed the peak recorded in April, to reach a new record of 3,145, according to data released on Monday.
“The spread of the new variant of Covid-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country,” Downing Street said. “The prime minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives.”
Mr Johnson announced the new measures following a 30 per cent increased in Covid hospital admissions in a single week. The case rate of Covid-19 in England has increased three times since the start of December.
Residents will be urged to “stay at home” and only be permitted to leave for essential shopping, a single period of daily exercise or for emergency situations. Those who cannot work at home can continue to travel to work.
All non-essential shops will be closed along with pubs and restaurants, except for delivery and takeaway. Mr Johnson also banned takeaway drinks, following concerns that the virus was spreading due to outdoor socialising.
Travel will also be forbidden except for essential purposes. Support bubbles for childcare and adults living on their own will remain in place. Unlike the strict lockdown announced in March last year, playgrounds will remain open.
Parliament will be recalled to vote on the new measures on Wednesday.
The Joint Biosecurity Centre also announced that it would for the first time raise the threat level over Covid-19 to 5, the highest, which states that the UK faces the “material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”.
Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced a lockdown and a legal stay-at-home order across the nation from midnight to control the new strain of the virus.
Scots will be allowed out only for “essential reasons” such as shopping or exercise until at least the end of January. All schools will be closed for most pupils.
Ms Sturgeon said Scotland was in a similar situation with coronavirus to London four weeks ago. Since then, infections and hospital admissions in the capital have soared.
While schools in Scotland would be closed to most pupils and there would be a legal requirement to stay at home except for essential reasons, there would be no limit on the time people spent outside for exercise, Ms Sturgeon said.
Northern Ireland’s devolved executive also met on Monday night to discuss possible new coronavirus restrictions. Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, the deputy first minister, said “urgent” talks were required to discuss the “fast-moving and volatile” situation.
Backbench Conservative MPs are increasingly exasperated at Mr Johnson’s erratic approach to coronavirus policymaking, including some of those who owe their political success to the prime minister.
Two members of the 2019 intake said they had on Monday submitted letters of no-confidence in Mr Johnson to Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 committee of backbench MPs that governs leadership contests. “I’m completely fed up. He just can’t lead and this can’t go on,” one said.
Business called for more financial support during the third lockdown. Adam Marshall, chief executive of the British Chambers of Commerce business group, said: “The PM needs to step up with additional support for businesses alongside the additional restrictions on businesses. If you are going to close the economy again you have the responsibility to support businesses through it — the chancellor cannot wait until the March budget.”
Additional reporting by Anna Gross, Arthur Beesley and Dan Thomas