On the same day that Britain’s regulators gave emergency approval to the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, millions more people in England were told they will be placed under the country’s tightest regulations starting Thursday.
Three quarters of the country’s population will live under England’s toughest virus limits, Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced in Parliament on Wednesday. The government stopped short of introducing a full national lockdown, but will effectively create one across almost all of the country, with northeastern England and large parts of northwestern, southwestern and central England set to join London and southern and eastern England under the tier four rules.
The measures were deemed necessary as Britain is fighting to contain the spread of an especially contagious strain of the coronavirus that has brought the country’s cases to record levels and pushed the National Health Service to its limits.
Shortly before Christmas, London and parts of southern England — where the new strain is most prevalent — were moved up to the strictest regulations. Those restrictions include: a ban on indoor socializing; people staying at home as much as possible; and gyms, nonessential shops and restaurants remaining closed, except for takeaway meals. Meeting one other person outdoors and open-air exercise are permitted.
Britain’s number of lab-confirmed cases reported on Tuesday ballooned to 53,135 and frontline health care workers have been warning that hospitals are at a breaking point, with more patients admitted in England with Covid-19 than at the April peak. Some hospitals have already warned of shortages of bed space and oxygen supplies.
The country’s approval of a the homegrown AstraZeneca vaccine brought hope that the pandemic’s end could be near. “From the beginning, we’ve focused on the vaccine as a way out of this pandemic and now it is a reality,” Mr. Hancock said.
There has been growing outcry in Britain for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to act fast to tighten England’s restrictions to ease the pressure on the N.H.S., and with the fast-spreading new variant taking hold around the country, Mr. Hancock said, the government had to make difficult decisions to add more restrictions.
With cases rising rapidly, Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, is expected to announce later on Wednesday whether schools, which are on winter vacation, will close in January to clamp down on the spread of the more transmissible coronavirus mutation.