“There are some very hopeful signs not least from the Oxford AstraZeneca trials that are being conducted,” Johnson told Steve Baker, a Tory MP resisting stronger lockdown measures.
“But … SARS took place 18 years ago [and] we still don’t have a vaccine for SARS. We must be realistic about this – there is a good chance of a vaccine but it cannot be taken for granted.”
Three-tier lockdown system
The UK is battling to curb its second wave of infections, which has been growing by the tens of thousands in recent weeks.
The new three-tier system applies only to England, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland manage COVID-19 infections separately.
Johnson’s new tiers are labelled ‘medium, ‘ high’ and ‘very high’.
Under the lowest setting of medium, which currently applies to the bulk of England, including London, pubs and restaurants must shut at 10pm and no more than six people can socialise together.
The second setting, high, will close pubs and bars and restricts gatherings of six to outdoor locations.
Under the ‘very high’ setting, households are banned from mixing at all and personal care services such as gyms will close. Schools, universities and retail, however, will all remain open.
The government has said that pubs that served substantial meals could stay open even in the ‘very high’ tier because they would be essentially operating as restaurants.
In another major departure from the nationwide lockdown imposed in March, there will be no order for people to stay at home.
Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said the strongest measures would not be enough to get on top of the virus’ spread.
“I am not confident, nor is anyone confident, that tier three is enough to get one top of it,” he said.
But he said that experts were trying to find a “narrow path” or “middle way” through the difficult balance of “two harms” to the economy and the public’s health.
“The idea that we can do this (get reinfection rate down) without harm is an illusion, every country is struggling with this, it’s a balance of two harms.
“We’re all trying to find the balance, the middle way, the really narrow path,” Professor Whitty said.
The city of Liverpool will be the first to enter ‘very high’ restrictions from Wednesday, with Manchester likely to follow if Johnson wins support from local leaders.
The government will pay workers affected by closures two-thirds of their salaries and give businesses a £3000 per month cash grant.
Johnson said that England’s reinfection rate is currently between 1.2 and 1.5, which is well below the 2.7 to 3 level expected if the virus circulated unrestricted.
The UK recorded 13,972 new infections on Monday.
The current death rate, averaged across seven days, is 52 – well below the 967 average recorded at the height of the first wave in early April.
Even so, the government’s scientific advisers are worried about the average number of hospital admissions, which – across seven days – is currently tracking at 600 and double the rate seen in late September.
Professor Stephen Powis, from NHS England, said hospitals could have more COVID-19 patients than they did in March within a month following a seven-fold increase in admissions to intensive care in the north-west and north-east of England.
“We now have more patients in hospital with COVID-19 than we did when the government announced restrictions on March 23,” he said.
“Liverpool University Hospital has the highest number of COVID-19 patients, currently more than 250 patients with COVID in its beds. Sadly, as the number of those infected increases, then so will the number of people who die.”
“These figures are flashing out like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet and we must act now,” Johnson said.
The Prime Minister asked Britons not to travel to areas classified as Very High but international travel to the nearly 60 jurisdictions with whom Britain has established travel corridors is still allowed.
The country’s current outbreaks are mostly in north; the first wave was primarily concentrated in London and the south-east of the country.
Earlier, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described Europe’s second wave as “horrific.”
US President Donald Trump also seized on Europe’s second wave of infections, saying it disproved his critics’ claims that his own management of the crisis has been incompetent.
“Big spike in the China Plague in Europe and other places that the Fake News used to hold up as examples of places that are doing well, in order to make the US look bad,” the President tweeted
“Be strong and vigilant, it will run its course. Vaccines and cures are coming fast!”
Trump did not acknowledge that while Europe is experiencing its second wave, his own country is still in the midst of its first.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.