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England, Scotland to re-enter lockdown as new virus cases spike

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Both England and Scotland have announced national lockdowns until at least the end of January in order to combat a fast-spreading new version of coronavirus, amid warnings that hospitals face the greatest pressure since the pandemic began .

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a new, more contagious variant of coronavirus was spreading at great speed and urgent action was needed to slow it down.

“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than any time since the start of the pandemic,” Johnson said in a televised address on Monday, ditching his regional approach to fighting the pandemic.

“With most of the country already under extreme measures, it’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control.

“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.”

Johnson said the measures would include school closures from Tuesday and rules requiring most people to stay at home apart from essential shopping, exercise and other limited exceptions.

He said if the timetable of the vaccination program went as planned and the number of cases and deaths responded to lockdown measures, it should be possible to start moving out of lockdown by mid-February.

Under the new rules, which are set to come into effect as soon as possible, primary and secondary schools and colleges will be closed for face to face learning except for the children of key workers.

University students will not be returning until at least mid-February.

All nonessential shops and personal care services like hairdressers will be closed and restaurants can only operate takeout services.

Scotland will also go into a new lockdown with people ordered to stay at home for January to tackle the escalating COVID-19 crisis, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says.

Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament that from midnight on Monday people would face a legal requirement to stay at home except for essential purposes, similar to the lockdown imposed at the start of the pandemic in March last year.

“The situation… is extremely serious,” she said.

Sturgeon said a new variant of the virus accounts for nearly half of new cases in Scotland and is 70 per cent more transmissible.

“As a result of this new variant, (the virus) has just learned to run much faster, and has most definitely picked up pace in the past couple of weeks,” Sturgeon told parliamentarians.

Wales also says all schools and colleges there should move to online learning until January 18.

As of Monday, there were 26,626 COVID patients in hospitals in England, an increase of more than 30 per cent from a week ago.

More than 75,000 people in the United Kingdom have died from COVID-19 within 28 days of a positive test since the start of the pandemic. A record 58,784 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday.

The new restrictions come as UK scientists express concern that COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out in the country may not be able to protect against a new variant that emerged in South Africa and has spread internationally.

Both the United Kingdom and South Africa have detected new, more transmissible variants of the COVID-19-causing virus in recent weeks that have driven a surge in cases.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday he was now very worried about the variant identified in South Africa.

Public Health England said there was currently no evidence to suggest that vaccines will not be effective against the new variant.

Greek Orthodox Church to defy virus closure order

The Greek Orthodox Church is planning to rebel against the restrictions on churches imposed by the government over the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

“We order all churches to remain open for the Feast of the Epiphany,” Bishop Anthinagoras, a spokesperson for the Holy Synod, told state television broadcaster ERT.

He said that applied even if the police were to intervene.

The bishop said that all of the regulations imposed over the Christmas period had been followed.

They required mask wearing and that distancing be maintained at mass, with only one believer allowed per 15 square metres.

Church officials agreed that this year believers would not jump into the water at ports, as is traditional on Epiphany.

Greece tightened restrictions on January 2, reversing easing that had been permitted for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, after case numbers rose again.

Now, the traditional feast of Epiphany may only take place in closed churches, attended by priests and sextons but without the faithful.

Traditionally in Greece, priests throw a Holy Cross into the water to celebrate the baptism of Christ and hundreds of people jump into the harbour or lakes in hopes of retrieving the cross.

The first person to find it is said to have a greater chance of health and happiness in the new year.

-with AAP

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