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.
“We cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” said Mr Johnson, as he outlined the action “with a very heavy heart” at a Downing Street news conference on Saturday.
Travel and different households mixing will be banned under the new highest level tier with families elsewhere only allowed to form ‘Christmas bubbles’ on December 25 itself, the PM told the nation today.
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 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.
What is Tier 4?
With coronavirus cases continuing to rise and the upcoming Christmas break, stricter rules have been implemented.
This has seen the Christmas bubbles cancelled for a number of areas in the new Tier 4 restrictions.
A third national lockdown had been a possibility, but an extra – and tougher – Tier 4 has been introduced for the worst-affected areas in England.
What areas are in Tier 4?
London and the South East are among those to be affected by the new Tier 4 restrictions as the new Covid strain decimates the country.
The mutant variant is said to be 70 per cent more contagious than the current strain.
Full list of areas in Tier 4
From midnight, a new tier four will be introduced in areas including London, Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire.
For the rest of the country, the three household mixing limit has been cut from five days to just Christmas Day.
Those in tier four cannot mix indoors with anyone not from their household.
A stay-at-home order will be issued to residents in tier four, with those travelling to work or for education exempt.
Social mixing will be cut to meeting one person in an open public space.
Tier four restrictions will apply in all tier three 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, Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).
In tier four areas, all non-essential retail will have to close, along with hairdressers, nail bars, indoor gyms and leisure facilities.
People will be advised not to travel into a tier four area.
The restrictions will last for two weeks, with the first review due on 30 December.
HERE is the full list of areas in Tier 4.
- Surrey (excluding Waverley)
- The boroughs of Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings
- All 32 London boroughs and the city of London.
- Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough
- Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).
Is this the worst moment of the epidemic?
Robert Peston from ITV asks whether this is the “worst moment of the epidemic” as he says Prof John Edmunds from the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) has just told him.
Prof Whitty says: “Is it the worst moment? Well I’m afraid there have been so many terrible moments in this epidemic. This is another one.
“But I have to say in my own view this is not the worst moment in the epidemic [because] although this virus is more transmissible… we do have medical countermeasures.
“If you think back to the dark days at the end of March and April… we had no vaccines on the horizon.”
There is a prospect in the “medium-term future” where things could be “quite a lot better”, he says.
Sir Patrick says “this is a horrible moment for sure”, but says we know what needs to happen to slow transmission.
“Reduce contacts, do the basics: face, hands, space,” he says.