By William James and Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday defended a second COVID lockdown in England from critics who said it was unnecessary and others who said it was too late, arguing now was the time to prevent a "medical and moral disaster".
After rejecting calls last month for a new national lockdown, Johnson U-turned on Saturday, announcing new restrictions across England would begin at 0001 GMT on Thursday and last until Dec. 2.
Britain, which has the highest official COVID-19 death toll in Europe, is grappling with more than 20,000 new cases a day. Scientists have warned a worst-case scenario of 80,000 dead could be exceeded this winter.
But the British prime minister has come under fire from all sides over his about-turn - from those in his Conservative Party who see the measures as draconian to others who have long been urging government to introduce a national lockdown.
"We are fighting a disease... When the data changes of course we must change course too," he told parliament, setting out to lawmakers that action was needed to avoid a "medical and moral disaster" when hospitals could be overrun.
Defending his earlier measures to try to limit lockdown measures to those areas suffering from the highest infection rates, he said he had not been too slow in reacting as the number of cases spiralled across England.
"In fact we are moving to national measures when the rate both of deaths and infections for instance is lower than they were in France," he said.
Saturday's announcement is subject to a vote on Wednesday which will expose Johnson to a rebellion from Conservative Party lawmakers who reject the need for a national lockdown.
Some Conservatives fear the long term economic damage caused by the lockdown will outweigh the health risks of allowing businesses to stay open, and that there are wider risks to mental health and an erosion of civil liberties from lockdowns.
But to soften the blow, he said he would double support for the self-employed and said when the measures expired on Dec. 2, lawmakers would have a vote on a way forward.
Britain has reported 46,717 COVID-19 deaths - defined as those dying within 28 days of a positive test. A broader measure of those with COVID-19 on their death certificates puts the toll at 58,925.
Essential shops, schools and universities in England will remain open but pubs and restaurants will be shut except for takeaways. Outbound international travel is banned except for essential reasons including work and non-essential retail will close.
The opposition Labour Party has offered its support to the government, meaning there is little chance of Johnson losing the parliamentary vote. But, after Johnson rejected Labour's call for a lockdown, their votes will come alongside heavy criticism.
"Rejecting the advice of his own scientists for 40 days was a catastrophic failure of leadership and of judgement," Labour leader Keir Starmer said.
The rest of the United Kingdom - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - have their own lockdown policies and enacted tougher health restrictions last month.
(Additional reporting by Andy Bruce; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)