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2nd U.K. Coronavirus Lockdown Will Last At Least 4 Weeks

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was desperate to avoid this. But after surging infections and the largest death toll in Europe from COVID-19, he has called for another lockdown. It begins Thursday, and it will last for at least four weeks. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt joins us now.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So what are these new restrictions?

LANGFITT: Well, pubs are going to close, restaurants, bars, nonessential retail. This will not be as severe as the first lockdown, which was in late March, in that schools and universities are going to stay open. But it's going to be another economic hit to this country. And so what the government's going to do is going to extend what it calls its furlough scheme, where it pays up to 80% of salaries for workers who have been laid off basically, put on furlough. And of course, the problem is not just this in the U.K. It's been spreading throughout Europe. France went into a lockdown on Friday. Germany is closing bars, restaurants, gyms and theaters today.

MARTIN: So, Frank, you know Prime Minister Boris Johnson was against doing a second lockdown.

LANGFITT: Absolutely.

MARTIN: He said it was going to be a disaster.

LANGFITT: Yes.

MARTIN: So what changed for him?

LANGFITT: I think it's the advice of his scientists, of scientific advisers and the fact that the numbers are clearly out of control. There was one government estimate that he mentioned on Saturday night addressing the nation, as high as 50,000 new cases a day. This is just a sea change from what we saw in the summer where things were pretty normal here and maybe, you know, were under 600 on some days in terms of cases. Now, what Boris Johnson told the nation is if nothing more is done about this, we could see as high as 4,000 deaths a day here, and it could overwhelm the health system. And on Saturday night, Johnson said, you know, this could be one of the in fact - one of the impacts on one section of England.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: The current projections mean that hospitals in the South West will run out of capacity in just a matter of weeks unless we act.

MARTIN: Thus the new restrictions - but I mean, the U.K. first did this back in March. That was...

LANGFITT: Yep.

MARTIN: ...The first lockdown. How does it find itself in the same place seven months later?

LANGFITT: Well, I think a lot of people are asking themselves that question. I mean, one thing clearly is not enough social distancing. People did really relax last summer. People went to the beach. It was - it did feel normal, unlike the States and what you were going through there. And one thing - I'll give you a perfect example. Just on Saturday night, cops in Bristol in South West of England broke up a rave with 700 people - so not very helpful.

MARTIN: Wow.

LANGFITT: There's also been this fascinating study, which I think is really worth focusing on. It's out of - by scholars in Switzerland and Spain. And it suggests that a majority of the new cases here are connected to a variant of the virus that appears to have been imported from the U.K. over the summer but from British travelers who were coming back from Spain after the lockdown was lifted. Now, this doesn't mean that this Spanish variant of the virus drove the second surge, but it's a sign that the U.K. probably wasn't doing enough to prevent more cases from coming in here during the summer when many people were traveling to the continent for summer holidays.

I talked to a woman named Emma Hodcroft. She's an epidemiologist at the University of Bern (ph) in Switzerland. She's the lead author of this study, and I asked her kind of like how she felt when she saw this discovery.

EMMA HODCROFT: It's a feeling of disappointment because it shows that even though we did try hard over the summer, it wasn't enough. And I think that over the summer, we perhaps wished very much that things would be normal without necessarily taking the actions that we needed to to make that a reality.

LANGFITT: And now people again, Rachel, just like March, they're stocking up. I got my hair cut on Saturday, and a lot of the barbershops here in my town were full.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt from London.

Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.