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Lockdown as UK confirms new fast-spreading virus strain

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday imposed tighter coronavirus curbs on millions of people in England and largely reversed plans to ease restrictions over Christmas, as the country battles a new more infectious strain of the virus.

The number of cases in England has soared in the last two weeks because of a variant of the virus that scientists said is up to 70 percent more transmissible.

Although Johnson and his scientific advisors believe vaccines will still be effective, and the new strain is not more deadly or more serious in terms of the illness caused, the prime minister said the government had to take urgent action.

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He tore up plans to allow three households to mix indoors for five days over the festive period and said London and southeast England, which are currently in the highest level of a three-tier system of rules, would now be placed in a new Tier 4 level. “It is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” Johnson told a news conference. “I sincerely believe there is no alternative open to me.”

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People in Tier 4, about a third of the population of England, will be required to stay at home except for essential reasons such as work, and non-essential retail will close, as will indoor leisure and entertainment. Social mixing will be limited to meeting one other person in an outdoor space.

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The new rules will come into effect from Saturday night at midnight.

Johnson, whose initial response to the pandemic has been criticised for being too slow, had resisted calls to change plans for the Christmas relaxation, saying on Wednesday it would be “frankly inhuman” to ban it.

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However, those now in Tier 4 will not be allowed to mix with others over Christmas. And everyone else in England will now be allowed to see friends and family only on Christmas Day itself, Dec. 25.

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