Prime Minister Boris Johnson was already facing a treacherous week as he weighs whether to strike a Brexit trade deal with the European Union. Now, he faces pressure on another front, after his government on Monday imposed tighter restrictions on London to curb a virus flare-up.
That abrupt decision, announced in Parliament by the health minister, Matt Hancock, will close pubs and restaurants in London, effective Wednesday. The move comes just 10 days before Christmas, and could drive away the shoppers who normally throng Oxford and Regent Streets at this time of the year.
Mr. Hancock said the British health authorities had identified a new, faster-growing variant of the virus, which he said might explain why the number of cases was rising so quickly in London, as well as in parts of southern and eastern England.
But that sobering news did not prevent grumbling from some members of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party, who warned that the new restrictions would deal another blow to the beleaguered hospitality and retail industries.
Medical experts said the discovery of a new variant was not, by itself, all that surprising. The variant, which has been found in roughly 1,000 people after first being detected in Kent, in southern England, is similar to that in other countries. Experts said that it served mainly to underscore the need for more robust border controls.
More baffling, they said, was the government’s on-again, off-again plan for dealing with the surge in cases. Under the new restrictions, pubs and restaurants in London will be closed, except for takeout service, while people from different households will be forbidden from socializing indoors.
Yet under a previously announced plan for Christmas, the government will temporarily lift the restrictions again a week later to allow up to three families to mix indoors. The break will begin Dec. 23 and last until Dec. 27 in most parts of Britain (those traveling to and from Northern Ireland can travel on Dec. 22 and 28). After that pause, London and the other affected regions would presumably go back under tighter restrictions.
Mayor Sadiq Khan of London has encouraged the government to rethink the holiday break, warning families, “This virus doesn’t respect Christmas.”
“We heard from Matt Hancock yesterday that it appears the government is looking at this again,” Mr. Khan told BBC Radio 4’s Today show on Tuesday morning. “I would encourage them to do so if they are.”
Two leading medical journals in a joint editorial published on Tuesday also criticized the British government’s decision to loosen measures over Christmas, warning that the move could lead to hospitals becoming overwhelmed by new cases.