LONDON — The lights may be on, but Christmas in London, and large parts of England, is off.
Spooked by the rapid spread of a new strain of the coronavirus in London and the southeast of the country, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tore up earlier guidance on family and friends and Christmas gatherings, telling millions there would no longer be a five-day relaxation of rules over the holiday period.
As of Sunday, Dec. 20, London will be back in lockdown with all non-essential retail, salons, hairdressers, cinemas and theaters forced to shut.
The new “Tier 4” restrictions in London and the southeast of England also mean that households will not be able to mix and form “bubbles” over the Christmas period. Previously, the government had said that up to three households could get together during the holiday period.
In other parts of the country, up to three households will be able to mix, but on Christmas Day only.
“Given the early evidence of the new variant, we cannot continue Christmas as planned. There is no alternative open to me,” said Johnson in an address Saturday afternoon from Downing Street. He said he was changing the rules with a “heavy heart” but that the government “must, and will be, guided by the science.”
There will be no relaxation of rules around New Year’s at all. “People must not break the rules” on New Year’s, Johnson said.
A new strain of the coronavirus appears to be spreading quickly in London and the southeast, although there is no indication yet that it’s more dangerous than the original virus, or resistant to the new vaccines. The variant has only just appeared as the campaign to vaccinate the U.K. has begun, with some 350,000 people already given shots.
Johnson said he was forced to make the changes to the Christmas rules or else “thousands more might lose their lives. But we’ll soon be rid of this virus. Get your vaccine, and we’ll beat it back.”
As of Sunday, people are discouraged from moving between tiers, and will only be permitted to leave their homes to attend places of worship, medical appointments, education and work.
London mayor Sadiq Khan described the new restrictions as a “bitter blow” for the city’s residents and for businesses “which have already suffered so much this year. London faces its toughest Christmas since [World War II], and the whole city will need to pull together to see us through this terrible period.”
At the time, Jace Tyrrell, chief executive officer of New West End Company, which represents hundreds of businesses in central London near Piccadilly, Oxford and Regent Streets, called it “the most important three weeks for British retail in recent memory. The eight golden weeks of Christmas normally deliver 2.5 billion pounds in spend to businesses in the West End alone. This is set to be reduced to just 900 million pounds this year in just three weeks.
“With comprehensive safety measures in place, and festive lights and window displays throughout the district, the West End has never looked better. With just three weekends until Christmas, it’s finally time for the great British public to shop out to help out,” he said earlier this month.
WWD has reached out to NWEC company for comment about the new London restrictions.
Last month Johnson had laid out his plan to ease the November lockdown 2.0 in England, which entailed a four-week ban on all nonessential retail, salons, restaurants and pubs. He also set out the five-day Christmas family and friends “bubble” strategy.
On Dec. 2 England returned to a tier-based system of restrictions based on local infection numbers and hospital admissions.