England will enter a four-week lockdown on Thursday, shutting pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops and piling criticism on Boris Johnson for failing to act earlier when his scientists told him to.
The fresh shutdown – which the prime minister repeatedly insisted would not be necessary – will also impose curbs on travel, ban households from mixing inside homes and cancel church services.
An exhausted-looking Mr Johnson said the restrictions would end on 2 December, but was unable to say what would happen next, other than to “hope” there would be no need to extend them.
The dramatic U-turn left him scrambling to explain why he had not accepted a “circuit break” earlier, when the Sage advisory group recommended it – which would have been for a shorter period.
He insisted the new lockdown would be “far less primitive and less restrictive”, but admitted: “I’m afraid, from Thursday, the basic message is the same: Stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives.”
Keir Starmer – who called for the circuit break 18 days ago – said: “The government completely rejected that, only to now announce the same thing.
“That delay in introducing restrictions will come at an economic cost and a human cost. I’m glad that the government has finally taken this decision – but it should have done so weeks ago.”
The announcement had to be rushed forward from Monday, after much of it was leaked, but the measures will not kick in until 5 November to allow MPs to approve them on Wednesday. They include:
* Shutting pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops, along with entertainment and leisure venues – including gyms – and hairdressers and beauty salons.
* Takeaways and food deliveries will be allowed, as will click-and-collect services.
* Travel, including abroad, allowed for specific purposes only – for work, education, healthcare, to shop for essentials and to care for vulnerable people.
* A ban on mixing with other households inside homes – although people will be allowed to meet with one person outdoors from another household and sit with them in a park.
* Schools, colleges and universities will remain open, despite the main teaching union calling for schools to close.
* Elite sport will continue – so the Premier League will not be suspended – but amateur sport will stop.
* The furlough scheme – with 80 per cent of wages paid by the government – will continue until 2 December, instead of ending on 31 October.
* There will be no attempt to bring the lockdowns across the UK into line, with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already having their own tougher rules.
Mr Johnson was spooked to act by new figures about the growth of the virus, which were presented to Cabinet ministers at an emergency meeting.
The infection rate has leapt to one in every 100 people – with more than half a million people carrying the virus at any one time – a doubling from one in 200 since the start of October.
Even more worryingly, the NHS is on course to run out of beds on December 4, even if elective treatments are cancelled.
The British Retail Consortium attacked “a nightmare before Christmas”, having called for shops to remain open.
“It’ll cause untold damage to the high street in the run up to Christmas, cost countless jobs, and permanently set back the recovery of wider economy with only a minimal effect on transmission of the virus,” it said.
But Mr Johnson told a press conference: “The virus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worst-case scenario of our scientific advisers, whose models now suggest that unless we act, we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day, a peak of mortality, alas, bigger than the one we saw in April.”
However, he continued to defend following the three-tiered regional approach of much looser restrictions, even amid the evidence it had failed.
And he attempted to lift the nation’s mood by pointing to “three rays of sunshine”; better treatments, the “realistic prospect of a vaccine” and improved testing.
On the looming festive season, Mr Johnson said: “Hopefully people will have something a bit closer to a normal Christmas as a result.”
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