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New Covid Strain Sparks UK Christmas Chaos

The Covid Grinch just got Grinch-y in the week leading up to Christmas.

The city of London and much of southeastern and eastern England shut down again midnight Saturday for at least two weeks under a new emergency lockdown to combat a new strain of the coronavirus, whose emergence spurred France to join other European nations shutting their borders to the U.K.

The newly identified Covid-19 strain is believed to be 70 percent more contagious than earlier forms, and the fresh lockdown is an effort to ease the expected rise in hospital caseloads. Under the new lockdown, nonessential high-street retailers, including fashion and footwear stores, were forced to close again during the final week of the critical Christmas shopping holiday. Retailers already hard hit by the first shutdown in March have been struggling to stay afloat. Several retail name including value chain Peacocks and Topshop parent Arcadia Group collapsed into administration, a bankruptcy equivalent, during the four-week lockdown that began Nov. 5.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been hesitant to impose another lockdown earlier last week, despite plans by the Welsh government on Wednesday to shut down nonessential retailers at the end of business day on Christmas Eve, and a decision by Northern Ireland on Thursday to close down the day after Christmas on Boxing Day.

“When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense,” Johnson said at a press conference on Saturday, adding that the new Covid-19 strain is “spreading very fast.”

The new strain is believed to have been first detected a few weeks ago in Kent, southeast of London, and the U.K. has already alerted the World Health Organization. The U.K. became the first Western country earlier this month to begin vaccinations using the approved Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which requires two doses to reach 95 percent efficacy. Taking just the first dose is only about 50 percent effective. The U.K. began Pfizer vaccinations the week of Dec. 7, with second doses administered three weeks later. It takes a few weeks after the second shot to fully develop the requisite antibodies, but even then, the vaccine won’t prevent someone from getting the virus but lessens the severity of Covid symptoms.

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Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said the lockdown presents a huge blow to retailers that have spend “hundreds of millions of pounds” ensuring their stores meet Covid safety guidelines.

“We recognise that the government has difficult decisions to make and the situation with the pandemic is very fast moving, but this is hugely regrettable news,” she said in a statement, noting the “severe” consequences of the decision to again shutter many retail businesses just days out from Christmas.

“For businesses, the government’s stop-start approach is deeply unhelpful—this decision comes only two weeks after the end of the last national lockdown and right in the middle of peak trading which so many are depending on to power their recovery,” Dickinson said. “Faced with this news—and the prospect of losing £2bn [$2.67 billion] per week in sales for the third time this year—many businesses will be in serious difficulty and many thousands of jobs could be at risk.”

Footfall to shopping establishments is already showing the lockdown’s impact, according to Springboard, a data firm tracking brick-and-mortar activity at retail. While traffic climbed by 2.3 percent across U.K. retail destinations during the week of Dec. 12-19, footfall on Sunday plummeted by a comparable 39.9 percent following the emergency restrictions, it reported Monday.

“The government’s shock announcement on Saturday afternoon with the introduction of Tier 4 has led to drastic changes in retail footfall across the UK,” said Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard. “The closure of non-essential retail in Tier 4 during what is usually the last, and busiest, week of Christmas trading will have a hugely detrimental impact on retailers who have already had a difficult year. Store vacancies have risen in each quarter this year, and we anticipate that they will rise further in 2021 as some businesses will be forced to cease trading.”

The U.K.’s emergency lockdown makes it the latest European country to be forced to implement tightened restrictions. Germany entered a hard lockdown last Wednesday and the Netherlands is under a five-week lockdown through Jan. 18.

On Friday, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the country would enter lockdown mode beginning Christmas Eve for two week, while Austria’s government has called for a third Covid lockdown on Dec. 26, 11 days after ending a second lockdown.

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.