Millions of people in the United Kingdom faced severe new restrictions on the coronavirus on Saturday, as Scotland and Northern Ireland called for tougher measures to try to stop a new type of virus believed to be spreading more quickly.
Northern Ireland has entered a six-week lockdown and in Wales, restrictions that were relaxed on Christmas Day are reimposed.
The number of people subject to the highest level of restrictions in England – Level 4 – rose by 6 million on Saturday to 24 million people overall, about 43% of England’s population. The region included London and many surrounding areas.
Mixing of families is not permitted inside the home, only essential travel is permitted. Gyms, swimming pools, hairdressers and stores selling non-essential goods have been ordered to close, and bars and restaurants can only eat out. Business groups say the restrictions will be economically disruptive to their members.
Another 570 daily deaths from COVID-19 were reported, bringing the total death toll in Britain to 70,195, the second-worst death toll in Europe after Italy. Britain also reported more than 32,700 new cases of the disease on Christmas Day.
Concerns about the new alternative in the UK sparked a week of border chaos. Around 1,000 British soldiers spent Christmas Day trying to clear a huge backlog of stranded trucks in southeast England after France briefly closed its borders to the UK and required all drivers to take coronavirus tests.
But British Transport Secretary Grant Shaps said on Saturday that more than 15,000 drivers had been tested and that the backlog of work at the test site at Manston Airport had been removed Sunday morning. He said on Twitter that only 36 positive tests had been reported.
“Thank you very much to everyone who has worked tirelessly during the past few days to reduce the massive disruption caused by the sudden closure of the French border,” Shabs wrote on Twitter.
The first cases of the new UK variant have now been detected in France and Spain. The French Public Health Agency said a French man living in England arrived in France on December 19 and tested positive for the new variant on Friday. He has shown no symptoms and is isolated at his home in the city center of Tours.
Meanwhile, health authorities in the Madrid region said they had confirmed the presence of the British surrogate in four people, all of whom were in good health. Regional Health Director Enrique Ruiz Escudero said the new strain arrived when an infected person flew to Madrid airport.
In the annual Christmas address, Queen Elizabeth II, who spent most of the year in seclusion at Windsor Castle with her husband Prince Philip, sent a sincere message of hope in which she praised the “indomitable spirit” of those who “magnificently” rose to the face of pandemic challenges.
The 94-year-old Queen and her 99-year-old husband Prince Philip have set an example by not visiting relatives as usual over Christmas.
© 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.