Millions of people across southeast England will no longer be able to mix with other households at Christmas, with a new Tier 4 level of COVID restrictions – equivalent to a full lockdown – to come into force tomorrow.
In a dramatic move, prompted by fears over a new strain of coronavirus, all those areas currently in Tier 3 in the South East – including London – will move to the new Tier 4 on Sunday.
And, in further stark action across the rest of England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced the planned five-day easing of restrictions over the festive period will now be limited to a single day.
“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, and the potential risk it poses, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” he said at a Downing Street news conference on Saturday.
The Tier 4 measures will see all non-essential shops, gyms, and hairdressers close, with people ordered to stay home apart from limited exceptions such as work – if people cannot work from home – education, childcare and exercise.
People in Tier 4 areas will no longer be allowed to form “Christmas bubbles” with other households.
Meanwhile, outside of the South East, people will still be allowed to mix in private homes with up to two other households, but now only on Christmas Day.
The Tier 4 measures in the South East will be in place for an initial two-week period, with a review on 30 December, and Mr Johnson stressed that people must stick to the rules for the New Year period.
Those in Tier 4 areas are being ordered not to stay overnight away from home or travel abroad for holidays, while people in other areas are being advised not to enter Tier 4 areas – and not to travel generally if they can avoid it.
Under England’s new highest level of restrictions, only one person from a household can meet with another person from a different household outside, although exemptions will continue for support bubbles and childcare bubbles.
Those who are deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable in Tier 4 areas will be told to follow the same guidance as during November’s England-wide lockdown, which urged those people to stay at home as much as possible apart from outdoor exercise or to attend health appointments.
Downing Street suggested schools would still reopen in Tier 4 areas after the Christmas holidays.
The action has been prompted by the government’s fears over a new strain of coronavirus – known as VUI-202012/01 – which is believed to spread more quickly than the original strain and is judged to be the reason for rapidly rising infection rates in the South East.
Mr Johnson said it could be up to “70% more transmissible”, and that the situation had given him “no alternative” but to toughen up restrictions.
“Our advisers on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) have spent the last few days analysing this new variant – there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality but it does appear to be passed on significantly more quickly,” he said.
COVID-19 cases have been nearly doubling in London over the past few weeks, while in Kent cases have continued to rise despite the county having been under Tier 3 measures since the end of last month’s lockdown.
This has led to fears that Tier 3 measures are unable to contain the new strain and more needs to be done in London and the South East.
The new strain has been detected in two other countries other than the UK, albeit in very small quantities.
People in all tiers in England were advised to “stay local” by Mr Johnson and to “carefully consider whether they need to travel abroad”.
The prime minister earlier chaired a cabinet meeting on Saturday afternoon.
There are currently no plans to recall parliament to allow MPs to vote on the new measures.
Following the announcement of a strict new lockdown for the capital, London mayor Sadiq Khan posted on Twitter: “These further restrictions are a bitter blow.
“Our city faces its toughest Christmas since the war – and we will all need to pull together to see us through this terrible period.
“Please follow the new rules – lives depend on it.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was due to hold her own news conference later on Saturday.