UK says 4-week coronavirus lockdown may have to last longer

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People take a drink outside a theatre on Saint Martin's Lane in central London, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. Earlier Saturday British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced England will start a month long lockdown next week. Johnson says the new measures will begin Thursday and last until Dec. 2. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, Pool)

LONDON – A new national lockdown in England may have to last longer than the planned four weeks if coronavirus infection rates don’t fall quickly enough, a senior government minister said Sunday.

The lockdown announced Saturday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to run from Thursday until Dec. 2. Johnson says it's needed to stop hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients within weeks.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove said it was the government’s “fervent hope” that the lockdown would end on time, but that could not be guaranteed.

“With a virus this malignant, and with its capacity to move so quickly, it would be foolish to predict with absolute certainty what will happen in four weeks’ time,” he told Sky News. “We’re going to review it on the 2nd of December but we’re always driven by what the data says.”

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 short list of reasons including exercise. Hairdressers, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and bowling alleys are among venues that must shut down, and foreign holidays are barred.

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

Britain has the worst virus death toll in Europe, with more than 46,700 dead. It passed 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases on Saturday and confirmed another 23,254 new infections on Sunday.

Like 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. In recent weeks, new infections have been soaring across the continent, especially in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Spain and the U.K.