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U.K. leader orders strict new lockdown as COVID-19 variant surges

U.K. returning to national lockdown
U.K. returning to national lockdown 04:59

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday ordered a new nationwide lockdown for England in an effort to contain a new variant of the coronavirus. In a televised address, Johnson called the next few weeks a "critical moment" in the country's fight against COVID-19. Scotland's leader declared similar measures the previous day.

The new measure forces the closure of all schools, shutters personal care services such as barbers and hairdressers, and bans in-person dining at restaurants. While fines do apply for those who leave their homes without valid excuses, there are exemptions allowing people to go out for food or medical supplies, to get to and from childcare, or in genuine emergencies. 

Residents are asked to limit exercise outdoors to once a day. England residents can meet only one other person from a different household for outdoor exercise, and social distancing must be maintained.

Johnson said he understood the "inconvenience and distress" the rapid school closures would have on families, many of whom had sent elementary age children back to school earlier on Monday in what proved to be a one-day school week, and on educators.

"We've been doing everything in our power to keep schools open because we know how important each day in education to children's life chances," Johnson said. "The problem is not that schools are unsafe for children — children as still very unlikely to be severely affected by the new variant of COVID-the problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households."

The new variant of COVID-19 was first detected late last year in southeast England and is fueling a dramatic surge in cases. More than 50,000 new coronavirus cases are being recorded daily, and hospitals in some regions are already overburdened by an influx of patients. Johnson said the new variant was between 50 and 70% more transmissible, making it much easier to catch and pass on to others.

Coronavirus Pandemic Britain
A family in Liverpool watches British Prime Minister Boris Johnson address the nation on January 4, 2021.  PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty

Before the announcement, over two-thirds of Britain had already been under the tightest, "Tier 4" restrictions. "Critically, if everyone plays their part by following the rules, then I hope we can steadily move out of lockdown," Johnson said.

The fast-spreading variant of COVID-19 has already appeared elsewhere around the globe. Most recently, it has been detected in New York, California and Colorado, in patients without any recent travel history. According to the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, there are "likely more cases" of the new strain still undetected in the U.S.

More than 2.7 million people have contracted COVID-19 in the U.K., with more than 75,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Experts fear post-holiday COVID surge 14:23

Tucker Reals and Charlie D'Agata contributed to this report.

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