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UK govt meets to discuss new lockdown as virus cases surge

(A woman compares two pumpkins at a Pumkin market in Covent Garden in London, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Pumpkin season has started with Halloween approaching on Saturday as trick or treating has been strongly discouraged due to the Coronavirus outbreak. AP Photo: Frank Augstein)

By JILL LAWLESS, LONDON (AP):- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was holding an unscheduled Cabinet meeting on Saturday to discuss a new national lockdown for England, after scientific advisers warned that hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus could soon surpass the levels seen at the outbreak’s spring peak when daily deaths surpassed 1,000.

Johnson’s office said the afternoon meeting would discuss “the government’s coronavirus response.” It came after the Times of London reported that Johnson could announce a month-long lockdown as soon as Monday, though the government said no final decisions had been made.

London School of Hygiene epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group, said Saturday that cases were running “significantly above” a reasonable worst-case scenario drawn up by modelers.

“It is really unthinkable now, unfortunately, that we don’t count our deaths in tens of thousands from this wave,” Edmunds told the BBC. “The issue is, is that going to be low tens of thousands if we take radical action now or is that going to be the high tens of thousands if we don’t?”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has introduced a system of local restrictions for England based on levels of infection. But scientists say it has not been enough to tame a surge of COVID-19 cases, and Britain is likely to join other European countries such as France, Germany and Belgium in imposing a second lockdown.

Any new lockdown would likely see non-essential businesses close and people told to stay mostly at home, though schools would remain open.

The measures would apply to England. Other parts of the U.K. set their own public health measures, with Wales and Northern Ireland already effectively in lockdown and Scotland under a set of tough regional restrictions.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Saturday that for now people in Scotland should not travel to or from England, “except for essential purposes.”

Lucy Powell, business spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, accused the government of “dithering” and said the country was now facing a longer lockdown than if Johnson had acted sooner.

Owners of businesses that have struggled to get back on their feet since the first lockdown was eased said the impact of new closures would be devastating.

A government program that has paid the wages of millions of furloughed employees during the pandemic ends Saturday, replaced by less-generous measures that are likely to bring a surge in unemployment.

“People have borrowed up to the hilt and spent money in order to get COVID-secure,” said Kate Nicholls of pub and restaurant industry group Hospitality U.K. “There is no spare capacity in the tank to be able to fund a lockdown, even for three to four weeks.”

The U.K. is recording more than 20,000 new coronavirus infections a day, and government statisticians say the true figure is far higher. The Office for National Statistics estimated Friday that 1 in 100 people in England, well over half a million, had the virus in the week to Oct. 23. On Saturday the country is likely to surpass 1 million confirmed cases since the outbreak began.

The U.K. has Europe’s highest coronavirus death toll at more than 46,000.

Jeremy Farrar, director of medical research charity the Wellcome Trust and a government adviser, urged swift action to avoid many more deaths.

“The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid,” he tweeted. “The second-best time is now.”

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