The prime minister said the new variant of coronavirus was spreading across the country at an “alarming” rate and could threaten the capacity of the NHS in just three weeks unless urgent action was taken.
He instructed the public to stay at home as he announced that from tomorrow all schools and non-essential shops will be closed in England. GCSE and A-level exams are now also unlikely to go ahead as planned.
The prime minister made his decision to lock down the country again after he was shown evidence that the number of Covid patients in hospitals in England has increased by nearly a third in the last week alone, to almost 27,000. New daily confirmed cases also reached a record high of 58,784.
At the same time, the UK’s chief medical officers agreed to raise the Covid alert level from 4 to 5 for the first time, indicating a risk that health care services could be overwhelmed within 21 days.
In a sign of the problems facing parts of the country, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had earlier announced a new lockdown north of the border, saying she believed Scotland was currently around four weeks behind London on the curve of the pandemic.
In a televised message from Downing Street, Mr Johnson warned that the weeks ahead would be the “hardest yet”.
Although the restrictions will not become law until tomorrow, Mr Johnson said he was instructing the public to stay at home from tonight.
Just a day after he proclaimed they were safe for children, Mr Johnson closed every school in England.
All primary schools, secondary schools and colleges will be closed from tomorrow, although nurseries will remain open.
Workers will be told only to leave their houses if it is impossible to do their job from home.
All students will also be told to stay at home and not return to campus for the new term. It is thought the only exceptions will be for a small number of practical courses such as medicine.
All retail will be closed and while restaurants can continue to offer delivery or takeaway services they will not be allowed to sell alcohol, as ministers try to crack down on socialising.
Similarly, adults will be allowed to meet another person from a different household but only to exercise, not simply to solely socialise.
As during the March lockdown, government sources made clear the police would have the powers to implement the new rules with fines.
The tough new measures are expected to remain in place until the February mid-term break.
Ministers hope the new restrictions will give the NHS time to vaccinate millions against Covid-19 before the disease overwhelms the health service.
It is understood there will be no exemption from the lockdown for those who have recently received a vaccine.
Making the announcement, Mr Johnson said:
“It’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out.”
“In England we must therefore go into a national lockdown which is tough enough to contain this variant.”
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, warned that the success or failure of the latest lockdown would depend on the willingness of the public to obey the new rules.
“I urge everybody to comply with the package that the prime minister just outlined, to follow the guidance,” he said.
“And I think that, in a way, we need to remake the contract with the British people which is … in return for you enduring these measures now for the coming weeks, the vaccine must be rolled out at speed. We need this to be mission critical.
“We were the first country to get the vaccine and we need to be the first country to have the vaccine programme rolled out.”