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Coronavirus news: London now UK’s Covid hotspot and Test and Trace cuts Christmas hours

Follow the latest updates from the pandemic

Covid: New variant found in UK from South Africa

London has been confirmed as the UK’s coronavirus hotspot following a dramatic surge in infections in recent weeks, according to the latest infection survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).  

The capital was shown on Thursday to have the highest percentage of people testing positive for Covid-19 in the country as millions more people prepared to be forced into tier 4 restrictions from Boxing Day as part of efforts to control a faster-spreading version of the virus.  

Health secretary Matt Hancock warned the UK’s variant was spreading at a “dangerous rate” and urged people to stay at home from Saturday in the affected areas.  

Meanwhile, other parts of the country, such as Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset, were escalated to tier 3 amid concerns about rising infection rates over the Christmas period.  

It came as The Independent revealed the government had asked England’s Test and Trace service to reduce its working hours during the Christmas holidays despite a surge in confirmed cases.  

Nearly 40,000 positive tests for Covid-19 were reported on Wednesday, yet clinical staff working for the system have been told to cancel shifts ahead of a shortened working day.  

Official figures released by the Department of Health and Social Care revealed 616,933 people had received their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by the end of last week.  

It came after Boris Johnson said almost 800,000 people had been vaccinated, however the prime minister is likely to have had more up-to-date figures when he made his address on reaching a post-Brexit deal with the European Union on Thursday. 

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Hello and welcome to The Independent’s live coverage of the coronavirus pandemic today.

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Tier 4 restrictions extended across England to include Sussex, Norfolk and Suffolk

Some 24 million people are set to be in tier 4 restrictions from Boxing Day after the health secretary warned that the government’s three-tier system was not strong enough to control a faster-spreading coronavirus variant which is thought to have originated in Kent.

“Tier 3 is not enough to control the new variant. This is not a hypothesis. It is a fact. And we’ve seen it on the ground,” Matt Hancock told a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday.

Our political editor, Andrew Woodcock, has the full story below:

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‘We have to be ready for future variants’, top adviser says

A senior medical adviser to the government has warned that “concerning” variants of coronavirus are likely to emerge in the future.

The government has already reported two variants, one which appears to have emerged in Kent and the other from South Africa, that are thought to be faster-spreading than other versions of the virus.

Peter Horby, the chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have to be ready for future variants like this

“This is clearly a pattern that's emerging. That we are going to see different viruses. Some of them will be of concern.”

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Test and Trace reduces working hours over Christmas as England infections spike

The government has asked England’s Test and Trace service to reduce its working hours during the Christmas holidays despite surging case numbers in the country.

Although nearly 40,000 positive tests for Covid-19 were reported on Wednesday, clinical staff working for the contact tracing system have been told to cancel shifts ahead of a shortened working day.

Our health correspondent, Shaun Lintern, has the full story below:

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Starmer says there is ‘light at end of tunnel’ in Christmas message

Sir Keir Starmer has said there is “light at the end of the tunnel” in the coronavirus crisis as part of his first Christmas message as leader of the Labour Party.

He used the video message to send a personal thank-you to the UK’s key workers as well as emergency service workers, NHS staff and carers who “will have to step up again, one more time, this Christmas”.

Our political editor, Andrew Woodcock, has the full story below:

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Transport secretary Grant Shapps has said the UK has agreed with France to keep the border between the two countries open “throughout Christmas” to assist hauliers and citizens returning home.

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Ferries will also sail on Christmas Day and Boxing Day as French firemen have been drafted in to help with testing thousands of drivers who have been stranded at the Port of Dover this week.

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Drivers stranded in Kent treated as ‘pawns in large game’, trade association head says

Lorry drivers stranded in Kent are being treated as “pawns in a larger game”, the head of the Road Haulage Association has claimed.

Richard Burnett told the BBC that he sympathised with drivers stuck near the Port of Dover after France closed its border due to concerns about the faster-spreading variant of coronavirus detected in the UK.

“I really feel for these drivers that have ended up being pawns in a larger game,” Mr Burnett said.

“Are they going to be held here until Boxing Day or beyond?”

He added that he was “relieved” that drivers would be able to move into France after testing negative for Covid-19, but added it would “take some time” to clear the backlog.

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French firefighters sent to Dover with 10,000 Covid tests for stranded lorry drivers

A team of French firefighters has been sent to Dover with coronavirus tests for lorry drivers who are stranded as they wait to cross the English Channel.

The French government has demanded a negative test from drivers seeking to cross to the continent following concerns about the faster-spreading variant of coronavirus which has been detected in the UK.

Our reporter, Adam Forrest, has the full story below:

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New York City to require all international visitors to quarantine due to new variant

New York City has said it will require international visitors to quarantine to guard against the new variant of coronavirus found in the UK.

Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on Wednesday that all international travellers to the city would begin receiving a city order to quarantine, delivered via certified mail to homes and hotels.

Deputies from the city sheriff’s office will also visit travellers from the UK to make sure they are self-isolating.

All international travellers must provide their contact information upon arriving in the city and those found to be violating quarantine orders could be fined $1,000 per day, the mayor said.

“There's going to be a follow-up, direct home visit or hotel visit from the sheriff's deputy to confirm that they are following the quarantine,” Mr de Blasio said.

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