Millions more head into UK virus lockdowns
October 23 2020 04:57 PM
A man wearing a protective face mask walks across Westminster bridge, during the coronavirus disease
A man wearing a protective face mask walks across Westminster bridge, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in London

AFP/London

Millions more people headed into coronavirus lockdowns in Britain on Friday, as the government boosted a jobs support package but acknowledged failures in a hugely expensive testing programme.

Central Manchester was eerily quiet after the central government imposed its most stringent measures on the city and its surrounding region, following bitter resistance from local leaders who wanted more financial aid.

The English county of South Yorkshire will also face the same ‘very high’ alert from Saturday, with many pubs and other hospitality venues closing and residents banned from mixing with others indoors.

The latest measures add to the regions already classed as very high risk or tier three, meaning 7.3 million people in England will be living under England's toughest restrictions from the weekend.

In addition, the devolved government in Wales ordered its 3.1 million people to stay at home from 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Friday, closing non-food retailers, cafes, restaurants, pubs and hotels for two weeks.

The UK government has warned that other regions could follow as it battles to get a grip on a second wave of Covid-19 that is worsening the highest death toll in Europe, although the government hopes that some normality may return by Christmas.

Across Britain, more than 44,000 deaths have been linked to the disease and cases have been surging after a summer lull, especially in northern England.

Official figures released Friday estimated a daily increase of 27,900-35,200 cases for the week ending October 16, giving a slightly reduced doubling time of around 21 days.

But the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted calls for a second national lockdown, arguing that its tiered system is better suited to target regions facing the biggest threat.

- 'Digital Christmas' -

On Thursday, the government improved a national jobs-support scheme after businesses hit by regional lockdowns claimed it did not go far enough to replace a furlough package that expires this month.

The Treasury did not divulge the overall cost but Johnson promised ‘billions more’.

‘We're doing everything we can to support businesses through this crisis,’ he told a news conference.

To protect the economy and avoid more lockdowns, the government has set great store by an ambitious programme to test people for Covid-19 and trace their contacts. The reported cost so far runs to more than £12 billion ($16 billion).

But the numbers of people being tested and traced are falling well short of official targets, and government scientists say the programme is having only a marginal impact on controlling infection rates.

‘I share people's frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times (for test results), and we need to improve it,’ Johnson conceded, vowing to ramp up the programme.

The UK government also revealed Friday that officials were analysing sewage to help spot local coronavirus spikes where few people are being tested.

Scotland, which like Wales has its own devolved government, announced a new five-tier plan of localised measures.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already extended the closure of pubs and restaurants in the centre of Scotland for a third week to November 2.

But outlining the five tiers, she insisted that the country was ‘not back at square one’ and that ‘we do not envisage returning to a situation as severe as the first lockdown’.

Scotland's national clinical director, Jason Leitch, said that Scots should ‘get their digital Christmas ready’ and prepare to be deprived of family contact for months to come.

But Johnson's spokesman said the prime minister was hopeful ‘that people can celebrate Christmas as a family this year’.




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