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Highly Contagious COVID-19 Strain Leads To U.K.'s Strict New Lockdown

NOEL KING, HOST:

A recently discovered variant of the coronavirus is spreading quickly through the U.K., and so Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, has announced a new lockdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: With most of the country already under extreme measures, it's clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out.

KING: So what does more mean? George Parker is with us. He's the political editor for the Financial Times. Thanks for being with us.

GEORGE PARKER: Pleasure.

KING: So Boris Johnson says it's already extreme, but we got to do more. What does that mean? How restrictive is this?

PARKER: Well, if you live in a place like London, the pubs are already closed. Most shops are already closed. We're being encouraged to work from home. But under this new lockdown, basically, you have to think about it as being - putting the whole country into hibernation for seven weeks. So the most important difference between where we are now and what's going to happen in the next 24 hours is that all the schools are going to close down. People won't be allowed to go back to university. There'll be no pub takeaways anymore. And basically, people will be not just encouraged to stay at home, but they'll be told to stay at home. Unless you've got a specific reason to leave the house, whether it's for exercise one day a week or to go to the grocery store or to a pharmacy, unless you have really good reason to leave your house, you'll be locked inside until the middle of February.

KING: OK, so it is, like, the end of socializing. I'm thinking of how this would play in the United States. And I'm wondering, how are people there reacting to this, being told you can't go anywhere for seven weeks?

PARKER: Well, there is a sort of libertarian streak in politics over here, as well, of course, including members of Boris Johnson's own party, who are strongly resisting this kind of authoritarian, apparently, set of restrictions. But the interesting thing is when you look at the opinion polls, the Brits are remarkably willing to accept the advice of the medical experts who say this is vital. Opinion polls when previous lockdown's been announced suggest around about three-quarters of the population agree with the decision. And it's not so much that there's a sort of police state here where you've got policemen at every corner checking to see whether people are nipping out or socializing. It's more that British thing where if your next-door neighbor shoots you a dirty look, if they think you've been breaking the rules or taking liberties - it's that kind of thing.

So it is very interesting, actually, in this country that people are prepared to observe these rules. And it's partly, I think, also the fact we have this love affair with our National Health Service, the sort of U.K. public health system, which is revered. It's the closest thing we have in this country to a national religion, as someone once said. And people want to protect it. And we've been warned that if we don't stay inside, the health service could fall over within the next three weeks.

KING: And it could fall over because there are so many more new cases. And is that directly tied to this new variant that we hear spreads really, really quickly, even if it is not necessarily more deadly?

PARKER: Yes, I think that's right. I mean, there was a problem which the prime minister made himself, really, by allowing people to mix a bit more over Christmas and the new year, which has led to further transmission. But the real problem, as you say, is this new variant of the virus, which emerged in a sort of serious form about a month ago in the county of Kent, which is just on the edge of London and basically appears to be 70% more transmittable than the earlier variant of the virus, which means, basically, you're seeing infection rates on graphs pointing straight upwards at the moment. It's a pretty serious health emergency at the moment. I do think people do understand that.

KING: In the seconds that we have left, the U.K. just approved a second vaccine. Are people optimistic that that's going to help?

PARKER: Yes, I mean, that's the one hope on this. Boris Johnson said that he hopes that all vulnerable people will be vaccinated by the middle of February. That's about 14 million doses by the middle of February. So we're keeping our fingers crossed the vaccine comes through and can be put into people's arms quick enough.

KING: George Parker with the Financial Times. Thank you, sir.

PARKER: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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