England to enter new lockdown; UK virus cases pass 1 million

 


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced a new month-long lockdown for England after being warned that without tough action a resurgent coronavirus outbreak will overwhelm hospitals in weeks.

On the day the U.K. passed 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, Johnson made a sudden about-face and confirmed that stringent restrictions on business and daily life would begin Thursday and last until Dec. 2.

He said at a televised news conference that “no responsible prime minister” could ignore the grim figures.

“Unless we act, we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day,” said Johnson, who was hospitalized earlier this year for a serious case of COVID-19.

Under the new restrictions, bars and restaurants can only offer take-out, non-essential shops must close and people will only be able to leave home for a shortlist of reasons including exercise. Activities ranging from haircuts to foreign holidays must once again be put on hold.

Unlike during the U.K.’s first three-month lockdown earlier this year, schools, universities, construction sites, and manufacturing businesses will stay open.

As in other European countries, virus cases in the U.K. began to climb after lockdown measures were eased in the summer and people began to return to workplaces, schools, universities, and social life. The Office for National Statistics estimated Friday that 1 in 100 people in England, well over half a million, had the virus in the week to Oct. 23.

Johnson had hoped a set of regional restrictions introduced earlier in October would be enough to push numbers down. But government scientific advisers predict that on the outbreak’s current trajectory, demand for hospital beds will exceed capacity by the first week of December, even if temporary hospitals set up during the first peek of the virus are reopened.

The scientists warned COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths could soon surpass the levels seen at the outbreak’s spring peak when daily deaths topped 1,000. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said the mortality rate had “potential to be twice as bad, if not more” than it was during the pandemic’s first European wave if nothing was done.

As European countries such as France, Germany, and Belgium in imposing a second lockdown amid surging caseloads, it looked inevitable that Johnson would have to follow.

Official figures announced Saturday recorded 21,915 new cases confirmed in the last 24 hours, bringing Britain’s total since the start of the pandemic to 1,011,660. Britain’s death toll from the coronavirus is 46,555, the highest in Europe, with 326 new deaths announced Saturday.

The United States, India, Brazil, Russia, France, Spain, Argentina, and Colombia have also recorded more than 1 million cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Scientists say the true number of cases is much higher because not everyone with the virus is tested.

Any new lockdown will need Parliament’s approval, and a vote is scheduled for Wednesday. The new restrictions would apply to England. Other parts of the U.K. set their own public health measures, with Wales and Northern Ireland already effectively in lockdown and Scotland under a set of tough regional restrictions.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Saturday that for now, people in Scotland should not travel to or from England, “except for essential purposes.”

Throughout the pandemic, many British scientists and public health experts have accused Johnson of being too slow to act. London School of Hygiene epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group, said that even with the new lockdown, Britain was facing “deaths in tens of thousands from this wave.”

Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said in response to the lockdown announcement, “There’s no denying these measures are necessary and I’m glad that the government has finally taken the decision that it should have taken weeks ago.”

But Johnson is under pressure from some members of his Conservative Party, who oppose tighter restrictions because of the economic damage they cause.

Owners of businesses that have struggled to get back on their feet since the first lockdown was eased said the impact of new closures would be devastating.

“People have borrowed up to the hilt and spent money in order to get COVID-secure,” said Kate Nicholls of pub and restaurant industry group Hospitality U.K. “There is no spare capacity in the tank to be able to fund a lockdown, even for three to four weeks.”

A government program that has paid the wages of millions of furloughed employees during the pandemic was due to end Saturday but will be extended during the new lockdown.

Johnson had planned to announce the lockdown in Parliament on Monday but was forced into early action after the Times of London reported the news. The government said there would be an investigation into the leak.

Johnson said the government had to make “incredibly difficult” judgments during the pandemic. He said it was “a constant struggle and a balance that any government has to make between lives and livelihoods -- and obviously lives must come first.”

England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the news conference that “there is basically no perfect time (to act), and there are no good solutions.”

“We’re trying to have the least bad set of solutions,” he said.

Ghosts, skeletons, princesses, and black cats roamed the streets, as usual, this Halloween, but they kept their distance, wore face coverings, and carried hand sanitizer in their quest for treats.

Like with everything else this year, the pandemic also left its mark on Halloween. Parades, parties, and haunted houses were canceled due to bans on large gatherings and concerns that spooky celebrations could spread the coronavirus.

But across the U.S., parents and costumed kids found ways to preserve the essence of the holiday Saturday while also observing the rules of social distancing.

In the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Tomeka Ray took her 4-year-old daughter, Diamond, trick-or-treating in the afternoon. The girl, dressed as a princess, wore her mask and carried sanitizer, with more of the disinfecting gel in the car for good measure, Ray said, so “I wasn’t too worried.”

At one home neighbors had rigged a remote treat-delivery system fashioned out of a ventilation tube, with a cardboard cutout at the end colored to make it look like a dragon’s mouth.

“I like that. I really do. That’s the third house I’ve seen that has that,” Ray said.

Caden Korchuk, 11, and friend Jayden Schoning, 10, both dressed as skeletons, also appreciated getting their candy delivered from a distance.

“Everything out here is really cool because of all the chutes,” Korchuk said.

In Glen Allen, Virginia, just outside Richmond, neighbors left individually wrapped bags of candy on tables at the end of driveways to avoid having dozens of kids coming to their doors and sticking their hands in the same big, germy candy bowls.

Matt Cheadle, a 35-year-old furniture designer, called it “extremely” socially distanced trick-or-treating.

Parker, his 5-year-old son, was going as Yoshi, the green dinosaur from the Mario Kart video game series, and the chance to show off his costume and get candy is all he’s talked about recently

“He’s already had so much taken away from him this year,” Cheadle said. “We think this is a small compromise for Halloween. The little kiddos will still dress up, they’ll still get to go driveway to driveway, but no door to door.”

Halloween comes as coronavirus cases are surging in many parts of the country and health officials warn of the potential for even higher numbers this winter.

More than 230,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the country, and total U.S. cases surpassed 9 million on Friday. Over the past two weeks, more than 78,700 new virus cases have been reported each day on average, up from about 55,100 in mid-October, according to Johns Hopkins University.

So many cities and towns issued guidelines for celebrating Halloween safely.

New York City’s health department recommended avoiding large groups, haunted houses, and bobbing for apples — “Keep your spit to yourself,” it said in an advisory. Officials urged people instead to focus on safe activities like pumpkin carving, home decorating, outdoor scavenger hunts, and virtual costume parties.

Lots of festivities were canceled, including the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, a nearly 50-year tradition that typically draws tens of thousands to the streets of Manhattan. Organizers staged a virtual puppet parade instead.

In New Hampshire, where coronavirus cases are also on the rise, emergency management officials in Coos County recommended residents not participate in door-to-door trick-or-treating or group events. Trick-or-treating was called off entirely in Pittsburg, a town of about 900 in the northern part of the state.

Betsy Curtin of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, and her sons were also skipping it for safety’s sake. Instead, it was a visit to their grandparents’ houses in costume — 7-year-old Alex as Batman and 9-year-old Charlie as Captain America — then back home for pizza and a movie.

“I only bought Kit Kats for them, so I’ve officially ruined their weekend,” Curtin said. “Hoping the grandparents come through with specialty chocolates.”


A record 90 million Americans have voted early in the U.S. presidential election, data on Saturday showed, as President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden campaigned across the country to try to sway the few remaining undecided voters.

as a Republican back in 72,
 

The high number of early voters, about 65% of the total turnout in 2016, reflects an intense interest in the contest, with three days of campaigning left.

Concerns about exposure to the coronavirus at busy Election Day voting places on Tuesday have also pushed up the numbers of people voting by mail or at early in-person polling sites.

The Republican president is spending the closing days of his re-election campaign criticizing public officials and medical professionals who are trying to combat the coronavirus pandemic even as it surges back across the United States.

Opinion polls show Trump trailing former Vice President Biden nationally, but with a closer contest in the most competitive states that will decide the election. Voters say the coronavirus is their top concern.

Trump has repeatedly claimed without evidence that mail-in ballots are susceptible to fraud and has more recently argued that only the results available on election night should count. In a flurry of legal motions, his campaign has sought to restrict absentee balloting.

“I don’t care how hard Donald Trump tries. There’s nothing – let me say that again – there’s nothing that he can do to stop the people of this nation from voting in overwhelming numbers and taking back this democracy,” Biden said at a rally in Flint, Michigan, where he was joined by former President Barack Obama for their first 2020 campaign event together.

Trump held four rallies on Saturday in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where the campaigns are seeking to win over undecided voters in areas like the suburbs of Philadelphia and the “Rust Belt” west of the state.

“If we win Pennsylvania, it’s over,” Trump told a large rally in Reading before moving to another big gathering in Butler.

Officials in several states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, say it could take several days to count all of the mail ballots, possibly leading to days of uncertainty if the outcome hinges on those states.

A federal judge in Texas has scheduled an emergency hearing for Monday on whether Houston officials unlawfully allowed drive-through voting and should toss more than 100,000 votes in Democratic-leaning Harris County.

In Iowa, a new poll published on Saturday shows Trump has taken over the lead there just days before the election. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll shows Trump now leads Biden by seven percentage points, 48 percent to 41 percent. The results, based on a poll of 814 Iowa voters, suggests Biden has lost support among independent voters in the Midwestern state.

At a small, in-person rally in Newtown, Pennsylvania, Trump mocked his opponent for his criticism of the administration’s record of fighting COVID-19, which has killed more people in the United States than in any other country.

“I watched Joe Biden speak yesterday. All he talks about is COVID, COVID. He’s got nothing else to say. COVID, COVID,” Trump told the crowd, some of whom did not wear masks.

He said the United States was “just weeks away” from the mass distribution of a safe vaccine against COVID-19, which is pushing hospitals to capacity and killing up to 1,000 people in the United States each day. Trump gave no details to back up his remarks about an imminent vaccine.

JOBS AND FRACKING

In his closing arguments, Biden has accused Trump of being a bully, criticized his lack of a strategy to control the pandemic, which has killed nearly 229,000 Americans; his efforts to repeal the Obamacare healthcare law; and his disregard for science on climate change.


He has offered his own made-in-America economic platform, a contrast with Trump’s “America First” approach, saying he will get the wealthy to pay their fair share and make sure earnings are distributed more equitably.

In an effort to highlight what he says is Biden’s plan to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract fossil fuels, Trump signed an executive order on Saturday that calls on the U.S. Department of Energy to commission a study about the potential harm caused by banning or restricting the practice.

The order also reinforces a prior law, directing federal agencies to produce reports about decisions that are detrimental to the fracking industry. Fracking for natural gas is a major source of jobs in western Pennsylvania. Biden denies intending to ban fracking if he wins the White House.

Stanford University economists on Saturday released an estimate that Trump rallies held from June to September led to more than 30,000 additional COVID-19 infections and possibly as many as 700 deaths. The study was based on a statistical model and not actual investigations of coronavirus cases. The paper, which did not cite disease experts among its authors, has not been peer-reviewed.


Public health officials have repeatedly warned that Trump campaign events could hasten the spread of the virus, particularly those held in places where infection rates were already on the rise. Determining the actual impact of those rallies on infection rates has been difficult due to the lack of robust contact tracing in many U.S. states.

Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, described the report as “suggestive.”

“I would just say it’s suggestive but hard to completely isolate the specific impact of one event without robust contact trace data from the cases,” Adalja said.

Biden’s campaign, which has sharply limited crowd sizes at events or restricted supporters to their cars, quickly seized on the Stanford findings.

“Trump doesn’t even care about the very lives of his strongest supporters,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

At one Biden rally in Detroit on Saturday, social distancing broke down as supporters crowded toward the stage to hear Obama speak.