Britons ordered to stay at home as third national lockdown begins

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain began its third COVID-19 lockdown on Tuesday with citizens under orders to stay at home and the government calling for one last major national effort to stem the virus before mass vaccinations turn the tide.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak announced a new package of business grants worth 4.6 billion pounds ($6.2 billion) to help keep people in jobs and firms afloat until measures are relaxed gradually, at the earliest from mid-February but likely later.

Britain has been among the countries worst-hit by COVID-19, with the second highest death toll in Europe and an economy that suffered the sharpest contraction of any in the Group of Seven during the first wave of infections last spring.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown late on Monday, saying the highly contagious new coronavirus variant first identified in Britain was spreading so fast the National Health Service (NHS) risked being overwhelmed within 21 days.

In England alone, some 27,000 people are in hospital with COVID, 40% more than during the first peak in April, with infection numbers still expected to rise further after increased socialising during the Christmas period.

A Savanta-ComRes poll taken just after Johnson’s address suggested four in five adults in England supported the lockdown.

“I definitely think it was the right decision to make. The NHS hospitals are really full so we’re in a similar position as we were in lockdown number one,” said Londoner Kaitlin Colucci, 28.

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“I just hope that everyone doesn’t struggle too much with having to be indoors again.”

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 75,000 people have died in the United Kingdom within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus, according to official figures.

Under the new rules in England, schools are closed to most pupils, people should work from home if possible, and all hospitality and non-essential shops are closed.

The semi-autonomous executives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have imposed similar measures.

As infection rates soar across Europe, other countries are also clamping down on public life. Germany is set to extend its strict lockdown until the end of the month, and Italy decided on Tuesday to keep nationwide restrictions in place this weekend while relaxing curbs on weekdays.

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Sunak’s latest package of grants adds to the eye-watering 280 billion pounds in government support already announced for this financial year to stave off total economic collapse.

“This will help businesses to get through the months ahead – and crucially it will help sustain jobs, so workers can be ready to return when they are able to reopen,” he said in a statement.

The new lockdown is likely to cause the economy to shrink again, though not by as much as the huge shock caused by the first one in spring 2020.

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JP Morgan economist Allan Monks said he was now expecting the economy to shrink by 2.5% in the first quarter of 2021 — compared with almost 20% in the April-June period of last year.

More than a million people in Britain have already received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The government aims to vaccinate all elderly care home residents and their carers, everyone over the age of 70, all frontline health and social care workers, and everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable, by mid-February.

But senior minister Michael Gove urged caution in terms of when that might translate into an easing of restrictions.

“We’ll be able to review the progress that we’ve made on the 15th of February … and we hope that we’ll be able to progressively lift restrictions after that, but what I can’t do is predict, nobody can predict with accuracy what we will be able to relax and when,” he said on Sky News.

Gove also said the government would soon announce new measures aimed at international travellers.

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