LONDON (Reuters) - The one-month lockdown for England announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson this weekend could be extended as Britain struggles to contain a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a senior cabinet member said on Sunday.
After resisting the prospect of a new national lockdown for most of last month, Johnson announced on Saturday that new restrictions across England would kick in after midnight on Thursday morning and last until Dec. 2.
The United Kingdom, which has the biggest official death toll in Europe from COVID-19, is grappling with more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day and scientists have warned a worst-case scenario of 80,000 dead could be exceeded this winter.
Asked if a lockdown could be extended beyond early December, senior cabinet minister Michael Gove told Sky News: “Yes.”
Britain has reported 46,717 COVID-19 deaths - defined as those dying within 28 days of a positive test. A broader measure of those with COVID-19 on their death certificates puts the toll at 58,925.
“We can definitively say that unless we take action now, the (health service) is going to be overwhelmed in ways that none of us could countenance,” Gove said.
Several cabinet ministers hinted England’s lockdown could extend to next year, with the government considering a brief relaxation over the Christmas period, according to The Times.
The cabinet ministers said they believed it would be “very difficult” to end the lockdown if coronavirus-related deaths and hospital admissions were still rising, the newspaper reported.
The new lockdown announcement came 10 days after Johnson told parliament it would “make no sense at all” to “turn the lights out with a full national lockdown”.
Critics have accused him of dithering at the expense of both lives and the economy.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said the government had missed a golden chance to lock down England more effectively during a week-long school break at the end of October.
“Well that’s gone now. That is the price of the government’s incompetence,” Starmer told the BBC.
The other parts of the United Kingdom - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - have their own policies and enacted tougher COVID-19 health restrictions in recent weeks.
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Government scientific adviser Jeremy Farrar said the lockdown would need to be extended beyond early December unless the epidemic was clearly shrinking.
“Much better to do that than remove these restrictions and then have to reimpose even more draconian restrictions around Christmas or soon into the new year,” he told the BBC.
Farrar said he had high hopes vaccines would make a big difference to the pandemic next year, even if they might not be perfect.
British drugmaker AstraZeneca said on Sunday Britain’s health regulator had started an accelerated review of its potential coronavirus vaccine.
Gove said the government would publish more information in coming days about financial support for businesses and households, including extending a scheme to pay most of the salaries of furloughed workers, which had been due to end on Oct. 31.
The new measures are likely to add substantially to the roughly 200 billion pounds of emergency spending already committed.
JPMorgan estimated on Sunday that an extra 20 billion pounds of government support will be provided to counter a 1.5% fall in economic output in the fourth quarter - a combination that would push the budget deficit to some 20% of gross domestic product.
Even before the latest lockdown announcement, a Reuters poll of economists suggested the economy was on course to contract 10% this year, its worst performance since the early 1700s.
The survey showed the Bank of England is likely to announce a 100 billion-pound expansion of its bond buying stimulus on Thursday.
Reporting by Andy Bruce; Additional reporting by Rebekah Mathew in Bengaluru; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Raissa Kasolowsky and Lincoln Feast.
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