UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced a new lockdown for England's 56 million residents to combat a fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus.
As part of the measures, which are to last until mid-February, primary and secondary schools will be closed from Wednesday, he said during a televised broadcast. People will only be allowed to leave their homes to shop for essentials, exercise, medical reasons, or to go to work.
University students would not return to their studies — from the Christmas-New Year's break — until the middle of next month.
The UK is at "a critical moment,'' Johnson said, with cases rising rapidly in every part of the country, with "tough, tough'' weeks to come in the fight against COVID-19.
"As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than any time since the start of the pandemic," he added.
"We must therefore go into a national lockdown, which is tough enough to contain this variant. That means the government is once again instructing you to stay at home."
Record COVID case numbers
Johnson's declaration followed a call from the UK's chief medical officers to ramp up restrictions to the highest level, as there is a "material risk of the National Health Service in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.''
"Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant," said the health chiefs for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in a statement released Monday.
The UK has been recording more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases daily since December 29. On Monday, a record 58,784 cases were reported across the UK.
New vaccine in use
The lockdown announcement comes as UK health authorities on Monday began administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, with an 82-year-old man receiving the first shot.
With the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine also in its arsenal, the UK is hoping that a nationwide mass-vaccination program will be enough to slow the virus's spread and allow for life to return to normal by the spring.
"The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet but I really do believe that we're entering the last phase of the struggle," Johnson said.
Scotland also announces lockdown
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier on Monday imposed a stringent lockdown starting Tuesday and expected to last until the end of January.
Businesses and services will be closed and people will be required to stay at home except for essential reasons to help ease pressure on hospitals and intensive care units, Sturgeon said.
"I am more concerned about the situation we face now than I have been at any time since March last year,'' she added.