LONDON — A new national lockdown in England may have to last longer than the planned four weeks if coronavirus infection rates don't fall quickly enough, a senior government minister said Sunday.
The lockdown announced Saturday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to run from Thursday until Dec. 2. Johnson says it's needed to stop hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients within weeks.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove said it was the government's "fervent hope" that the lockdown would end on time, but that could not be guaranteed.
"With a virus this malignant, and with its capacity to move so quickly, it would be foolish to predict with absolute certainty what will happen in four weeks' time," he told Sky News.
Under the new restrictions, bars and restaurants can only offer take-out, non-essential shops must close and people will only be able to leave home for a short list of reasons including exercise. Hairdressers, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and bowling alleys are among venues that must shut down, and foreign holidays are barred.
Unlike during the U.K.'s first three-month lockdown earlier this year, schools, universities, construction sites and manufacturing businesses will stay open.
Britain has the worst virus death toll in Europe, with over 46,500 dead, and it passed 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases on Saturday.
Like other European countries, virus cases in the U.K. began to climb after lockdown measures were eased in the summer and people began to return to workplaces, schools, universities and social life.
Johnson had hoped regional restrictions introduced in October would be enough to push the numbers of new infections down. But government scientific advisers predict that on the outbreak's current trajectory, demand for hospital beds will exceed capacity by the first week of December, even if temporary hospitals set up during the first peak of the virus are reopened.
"Unless we act, we could see deaths in this country running at several thousand a day," Johnson said as he announced the lockdown during a televised news conference on Saturday evening.
But owners of pubs, restaurants, theaters, nightclubs and gyms all say the measures will be devastating.
Leaders of the Roman Catholic church joined the criticism. Under the new measures, places of worship can stay open for private prayer and funerals, but not for communal worship.
England's top two Catholic clergy, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, said the suspension of services would cause "deep anguish" and the Conservative government should show the evidence supporting the decision.
"Faith communities have played a vital role in sustaining personal, spiritual and mental health and encouraging vital charitable activities" during the pandemic, they said. "That critical service towards the common good of all is created and sustained by communal worship and prayer."