British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced a complete lockdown in England amid concerns over the new, faster-spreading variant of the coronavirus in the country, BBC reported.

The lockdown restrictions in England are likely to remain in force till mid-February. They will come into effect from Wednesday. Schools in the country would remain closed during that time. People have been advised to stay home and step out for essential tasks only.

Johnson said in a televised address that the coming weeks “would be the hardest yet”. The British prime minister added that hospitals were under “more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic”.

The new restrictions discourage people from socialising with those outside their homes, according to The Guardian. Salons, gyms, swimming pools, gyms, golf courses will be closed, but playgrounds will remain open.

This will be the third national lockdown in England. The police have the power to arrest people or impose fines on them for violating the rules.

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The restrictions were announced even as the United Kingdom began rolling out the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine. An 82-year-old man was the first person outside clinical trials to receive the vaccine on Monday.

The UK has so far reported over 27 lakh coronavirus cases, including 75,547 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University. The country’s recoveries stand at 6,260.

The mutant virus strain

The new UK virus variant, which scientists have named “VUI – 202012/01”, includes a genetic mutation in the “spike protein”, which could result in coronavirus spreading more easily between people. It was first announced by Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, on December 14, and was subsequently confirmed by Public Health England and the UK’s Covid-19 sequencing consortium. Screening back through databases of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, the first sample was taken in the county of Kent on September 20.

The variant carries 23 mutations in its genetic code a relatively high number of changes compared with the version that originated in Wuhan, China, a year ago and some of these are affecting its ability to spread. Johnson has claimed that this was as much as 70% more transmissible than previous versions.

Most scientists have said that the new variant has rapidly become the dominant strain in coronavirus cases in parts of southern England, and have linked it to an increase in hospitalisation rates. However, it is difficult to say exactly how much more transmissible the new variant may be as scientists have not yet done the kind of lab experiments that are required to assess it.

The new strain has also been reported in India, United States, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore.