The British government on Thursday vowed to persist with localised coronavirus restrictions, despite fresh data showing surging numbers of cases and deaths across the country, and new national lockdowns in its European neighbours.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick conceded statistics showed Britain was in a “bad place”, with nearly 25,000 new cases registered on Wednesday.
But he indicated that ministers were still opposed to another nationwide lockdown and said targeted action was “the best way forward” given varying rates of infection.
“We will continue with our localised but proportionate approach on taking action where the virus is strongest,” he told Sky News television.
“Despite the fact the virus is rising across the country it is very concentrated in some places nonetheless.”
France announced Wednesday it will begin a new month-long national lockdown while Germany — with lower case rates than Britain — will also roll out drastic new curbs.
The Republic of Ireland shut down again last week, as did Wales, following in the footsteps of Northern Ireland which went into a four-week partial lockdown earlier this month.
In contrast in England, where health policy is set by the UK government, three tiers of restrictions remain in place depending on local infection rates.
But even the highest “tier three” falls short of ordering people to stay at home.
Figures released on Thursday estimate that about 100,000 people are catching the coronavirus every day.
Cases are doubling every nine days and rising in all age groups and regions, according to the ongoing study by Imperial College London and Ipsos MORI.
The R rate — which indicates the number of people one person with the virus is likely to infect — has risen to 1.6, it said.
Britain is also seeing a sharp increase in virus mortality rates.
Another 310 deaths of people who had tested positive in the prior 28 days were reported Wednesday — the second consecutive day of more than 300 fatalities.
– ‘Nationwide repositioning’ –
Britain is already the hardest hit country in Europe, with more than 45,000 fatalities among those testing positive.
But excess deaths registered during the pandemic suggest the toll could be nearly double that.
The worsening situation is now presenting a serious challenge to Prime Minister Boris Johnson “whack-a-mole” strategy of targeted local action in virus hotspots.
Earlier this year, Johnson was criticised for a slow response to the outbreak, delaying locking down Britain even as the number of positive cases and deaths spiralled across Europe.
He eventually imposed a national lockdown in late March, shutting all non-essential shops and schools, and forcing millions to work from home to cut transmission rates.
The stay-at-home measures were lifted in June as cases dwindled but numbers began to climb again from September.
That month, the government’s top scientific advisers recommended a national “circuit-breaker” lockdown over schools’ half term holidays this week.
But Johnson has so far resisted.
World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy David Nabarro said Johnson’s localised efforts had been “very effective” at slowing the virus’ spread in parts of northern England.
But he suggested a “nationwide repositioning” might now be needed.
Yet Johnson’s government is facing stiff resistance to more stringent measures from parts of his own Conservative Party and right-wing newspapers, amid the economic carnage wrought by the pandemic.
“Don’t do it Boris!” screamed Thursday’s Daily Mail front page, adding: “That’s the plea of medics, business chiefs and MPs who warn of dangers of second lockdown.”
But the Sun newspaper reported government scientists are again urging stricter regulations, warning there could be 25,000 virus patients in hospital by December.
In a small dose of encouraging news for the government, The Times reported ministers believe a German vaccine backed by Pfizer could be ready for rollout before Christmas.
The elderly and vulnerable would be prioritised for doses, it added.