The Prime Minister has confirmed a tightening of restrictions in England amid concerns over the rapid spread of a new variant of coronavirus.
In an urgent press conference following talks with cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson announced that from Sunday areas in the South East of England which are currently in Tier 3 will be moved into a new Tier 4 – effectively returning to the lockdown rules of November.
In addition, the rest of England will see the Christmas “bubble” policy – allowing up to three household to meet up over the holiday period – severely curtailed, applying on Christmas Day only.
"We cannot continue with Christmas as planned," Mr Johnson said.
Defending the changes, Mr Johnson said: “We, of course, bitterly regret the changes that are necessary but, alas, when the facts change you have to change your approach.
“The briefing that I had yesterday about this mutation of the virus, particularly about the speed of transmission, was not possible to ignore.”
The Prime Minister added: “We are sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so we have a better chance of protecting their lives so that we can see them at future Christmases”.
Shadow minister for mental health Dr Rosena Alin-Khan said: “Christmas plans are ruined for families up and down the country because of Government neglect, incompetence and an inability to get on top of this virus.
“Dither and delay has cost lives with more to come. The mental health implications of this will be tragic."
What are the restrictions under Tier 4?
Tier 4 will look similar to the England-wide lockdown rules of November.
The new Tier 4 restrictions will apply in all Tier 3 areas in the South East – covering Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.
It will also apply in London (all 32 boroughs and the City of London) and the East of England – Bedford, Central Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire and Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).
Non-essential shops, gyms, cinemas, hairdressers and bowling alleys will be forced to close for two weeks.
People will be restricted to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
Under the new “stay at home” order, people in Tier 4 will be told they should not stay away from home overnight
People should not to travel into a tier four area, though support bubbles will remain unaffected as do the exemptions for separated parents and their children.
The Tier 4 restrictions come into effect from tomorrow (Sunday).
What was said about travel?
The Prime Minister advised people in all tiers to “stay local”, and added that people should “carefully consider whether they need to travel abroad.”
People in Tier 4 will not be permitted to travel abroad apart from “limited exceptions”, such as work purposes.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said people considering leaving Tier 4 areas now should unpack their bag and stay at home.
“My short answer would be ‘please unpack it at this stage’,” he said.
How have the Christmas rules in England changed?
For those living areas under tiers one, two and three, the rules allowing up to three households to meet will now be limited to Christmas Day only.
Furthermore, the Christmas bubbles for those in tiers one to three will not be able include anyone in tier four.
What about other parts of the UK?
Speaking at the Scottish Government’s coronavirus briefing, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a “strict travel ban” over the festive period.
She also said that the easing of restrictions of indoor household mixing will only apply on Christmas Day and all of Scotland will be placed into Level 4 restrictions from Boxing Day.
The restrictions will be reviewed after two weeks, Ms Sturgeon said.
Ms Sturgeon also announced a travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK, which will remain in place throughout the Christmas holidays.
Wales will be placed under lockdown from midnight, with festive plans cancelled for all but Christmas Day.
Announcing the new measures, First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said: "While we all want to avoid further disruption to businesses and plans for Christmas, our overriding duty is to protect lives here in Wales."
What do we know about the new Covid variant?
Confirming that the spread of Covid was being driven by the new variant, Boris Johnson said that "it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant."
However, he stressed that there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality.
Professor Whitty revealed that there had been a “really dramatic increase in the proportion of cases” seen with the new variant.
He said screening tests suggested that in the South East 43% of the virus was now the new variant, in the East of England it is 59% and in London 62%.
“Those have gone up very, very fast over the last few weeks,” he said.
“This has really gone incredibly quickly. They are much lower in other areas of the country.”
The number of people in hospitals was also increasing in areas where the new variant was more prevalent.
“In the areas where this is very, very common you are seeing rates of increase of maybe 36% in the East of England, 34% in London and 28% in the South East.
“These are the areas which have actually had significant numbers of this new variant.”
Earlier, Professor Whitty said the UK had now informed the World Health Organisation that it had concluded the mutant strain could spread more quickly.
“As announced on Monday, the UK has identified a new variant of Covid-19 through Public Health England’s genomic surveillance,” he said in a statement.
“As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.
“We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.
“There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is under way to confirm this.
“Given this latest development it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission.”