LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
London is locking down for Christmas. British officials say a new, highly infectious version of the coronavirus is rapidly spreading across the east and southeast of England, forcing the government to effectively seal off the region from the rest of the country. Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered the bad news to the nation yesterday.
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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, the potential risk it poses, it is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Frank Langfitt is at home just outside of London, and he joins us now. Hello.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is not a good morning. I mean, tell us more about this new variant of the virus.
LANGFITT: Yeah, the strain is what I think has really unnerved people, including, clearly, the prime minister. I watched him last night. The new strain, he says, may be up to 70% more transmissible than the many older variants that have been circulating around the country for months. It accounts for more than 60% of the new cases in London. Now, nationally, we had about 27,000 new cases here - yesterday, over 500 deaths. But here in the hardest part of the country, things have really been skyrocketing. Patrick Vallance is the government's chief scientific adviser. This is what he said yesterday afternoon.
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PATRICK VALLANCE: This virus has taken off. It's moving fast. And it's leading inevitably to a sharp increase in hospital admissions.
LANGFITT: Now, Lulu, the only good news is, while this is more infectious, there's no sign yet, the scientists, say that it's more deadly or that it has more severe symptoms.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are just five days before Christmas. How is this affecting travel? And how are people responding to this?
LANGFITT: You know, what the government has been saying to people now is, especially around London, where I am, in the east and the southeast, you're not to leave your homes except for essential trips. No mixing of households around Christmas, certainly, or any other time. And last night, there were these scenes out of rail stations in London, particularly St. Pancras Station, where thousands of people were fleeing London.
LANGFITT: And it was clear that they're trying to go off for family holidays, to go to other parts of the country where there are fewer restrictions, and they can see their family members. And also, these are parts of the country where there are lower rates. There were also lines of cars on the highway. So today, the British Transport Police say they're putting more officers at train stations to stop people making unnecessary trips, more police on the roads to prevent people crossing from lockdown areas like ours to the less infectious regions. And also, Italy now, the Netherlands and Belgium are all suspending flights in and out of the U.K.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am sure that this is very hard for so many people to have to cancel Christmas plans suddenly and also hard on businesses. I mean, this has got to have an economic impact.
LANGFITT: Yeah, it really is. And I'm particularly saddened today because yesterday, I spent - I went out with my mask, of course, on Main Street in my town outside of London, and I went shopping for Christmas presents. And I was trying to support the local towns which have been really, really struggling. And there was a kitchen store I went to that's actually been doing pretty well under lockdown because people are cooking so much.
LANGFITT: And they have - of course, they are closed this morning. The pub where my daughter works - they closed. I believe it was yesterday. And they're very, very anxious about being able to somehow, you know, make it through the rest of the holidays. And they've lost a lot of money. The vaccines are being rolled out. You know, it's been a couple weeks now. I think the last number I saw was about 350,000 people have gotten the first dose. But this is a country of 67 million. So there's really still a long way to go with the vaccine.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And if I may ask, I mean, what are your plans and the plans of people in your neighborhood for Christmas?
LANGFITT: Sure. Well, we have these next-door neighbors that are very nice - British, an older British couple and family. And they wanted to get together for Christmas at home. And we very politely declined because of this. And also, we're very concerned. My biggest concern would be picking it up and then infecting somebody. So our plan will be on Christmas Day to be actually standing on our lawns, maybe raising a glass of Prosecco or something to each other and chatting. But that's going to be about it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thank you very much.
LANGFITT: Great to talk, Lulu.
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